NORTH WILDWOOD – “It’s not about ‘I,’ it’s about ‘we’,” Lt. Michael Thornton said May 2, addressing fifth- through eighth-grade students.

Recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Thornton highlighted wartime experiences, focusing on overcoming personal difficulties and loving one’s country.

The Margret Mace Elementary School auditorium was filled with students prepared to ask questions and learn. History came to life.

Juliana Luz, history teacher for the sixth through eighth grades, welcomed Thornton and his wife, Rainey.

Thornton, 70, was born in Greenville, S.C. He grew up knowing he wanted to become a Navy “frogman,” forerunners of the Navy SEALs. Thornton’s father served in the Army from 1937-46.

“I only have a high-school education,” Thornton told students. Thornton encouraged students to continue their education. He advocated not only higher education but also vocational training for those seeking a different path.

“I set new goals for myself,” Thornton said, explaining how he never allows himself to be held back. He urged students to “move forward” no matter the challenge.

After completing training in 1967, Thornton served aboard destroyers as a gunner’s mate apprentice until November 1968 when he enlisted for SEAL training. In 1969, Thornton left California for the jungles of Vietnam.

“I was wounded many times,” Thornton said in response to a student’s question.

However, Thornton emphasized, “It’s not about ‘I’, it’s about ‘we’” in military service.

“You think about the guy on your right and your left,” he said.

Thornton’s service stretched from 1967-92. According to released information, he earned the rank of lieutenant and later as an instructor at Naval Amphibious Base (NAB) in Coronado, Calif. In 1978, he served two years with the British Special Boat Squadron (SBS) in an exchange billet.

Thornton said he regrets his absence during his children’s (a son and daughter) growing-up years.

As today’s youth face social issues, Thornton encouraged students “to do something positive” with hard experiences.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Thornton said. “We will all make mistakes. You have to be stronger than the fear.”

According to Thornton, he lost 68 friends during the Vietnam war. In response to a student’s question, he has had “only one bad dream” as a result of emotional trauma. A day came when he identified the remains of five servicemen.

“I’m not proud of killing,” Thornton added.

Thornton’s book “By Honor Bound” is a personal account of a 1972 mission along the coast of Quảng Trị, south of the Demilitarized Zone. SEAL Lt. Thomas Norris and three members of South Vietnamese Special Forces, along with Thornton, were sent on an intelligence mission.

Realizing they had gone too far inland, they attempted to go back, only to be attacked by North Vietnamese troops.

Norris was shot and assumed dead. Thornton went back for his friend, carrying Norris on his shoulders. Wounded multiple times, Thornton ran across the beach with Norris and then a wounded Vietnamese comrade, pulling them with him into the surf. Eventually, they were rescued by the destroyer “Newport News” after swimming three hours.

Norris survived and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Thornton received his medal from President Richard Nixon in 1976.

“There is nothing good about war,” Thornton said. “It’s ugly. People die.”

Thornton encouraged students to “learn their history” and move forward towards a bright future.

“This is the country you will take from us,” Thornton said.

The Herald spoke with history teacher Luz whose students met with Thornton.

“Freedom isn’t free,” Luz said, expressing gratitude for Thornton’s service and all he represents. Thornton took a detour to North Wildwood on his way to speak at Annapolis, Md.

Thornton concluded by saying, “Enjoy your (students) life to the fullest. Whatever you do, do it to your fullest.”

To contact Rachel Rogish, email rrogish@cmcherald.com.