Medal of Honor recipients Mike Thornton (left) and Tom Norris, both on stage, help during the auction portion of Warrior Appreciation Night Jan. 16, at Dal Toro Ristorante in Las Vegas. The American Legion was the event's presenting sponsor.

A night of camaraderie, honoring and fundraising

U.S. Navy veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Norris has been attending troop-support events for decades. Now 70, those displays of patriotism and affection toward America’s servicemembers never grow old for him – especially considering the reception he and his fellow Vietnam War veterans sometimes received.

Norris was one of several distinguished guests at the Jan. 16 Warrior Appreciation Night at Dal Toro in the Palazzo in Las Vegas. The American Legion was the presenting sponsor of the event, which saw approximately 1,000 active-duty servicemembers, veterans, their family members and supporters come together for a night of camaraderie, honoring and fundraising.

“Times were a little bit different (during Vietnam War),” Norris said. “Americans really didn’t support the troops that much. And I know that everyone in my generation has done everything they can to ensure that never happens again. The American public today has turned around and is very supportive of the military, and it means a great deal to those troops deployed – and to the families.”

Among Norris’ fellow guests at the event was Medal of Honor recipient – and longtime friend – Mike Thornton, who was awarded the MOH for, ironically, saving Norris’ life during the Vietnam War.

“It never gets old seeing this support, and seeing these people out here continuing to serve (their country) after their retirement because they love this great country,” Thornton said. “This kind of support means something to every person who has ever served this country.”

The 64-year-old Thornton, who still exhibits a commanding presence, dismisses the notion that he and fellow MOH recipients are any different than the others who have worn their nation’s uniform. “We all feel that that medal belongs to every man and woman who has served this great nation of America,” he said. “It’s not ours. We’re custodians of it to wear it on their behalf. And most of all, we’re wearing it for (those) who have given the utmost. They died for this country.”

Many younger veterans and current servicemembers were among the guests at Warrior Appreciation Night. Thornton got a chance to talk with many – as he has done often in the past.

“They’re outstanding,” he said of today’s fighting force. “I’ve been overseas, I’ve been to Iraq, I’ve been to Afghanistan … and of course to the bases around the country. It’s a volunteer service, and we have some great young men and women volunteering for that belief …. They want to serve their nation.”

Norris agreed. “The men and women that are volunteering today want to serve this country,” he said. “The ones that I have met and have associated with are just top-notch people. We’re very, very lucky to have people like that protecting us today.”

The Legion was presenting sponsor of Warrior Appreciation Night for the second straight year. Several Department of Nevada Legionnaires were present, as were Legionnaires from other departments, Past National Commander David Rehbein and National Finance Commission Chairman Kenneth Danilson.

“The American Legion is definitely the best and the biggest veterans organization in this country, and somehow we lost track of that in promoting our image,” Danilson said. “We have so many special things that we do for the veterans and their families, and this is one way, an important way, that we can do that. And it’s very exciting to be involved in an event, and if anybody gets to see something like this, we can communicate to them and (make them) understand that we are the future of the veterans and their families in this country.”

Actor Michael Gregory, whose film roles include “Robocop” and “Total Recall,” served as master of ceremonies for the evening. Silent and live auctions took place during the course of the event, raising thousands of dollars for various veteran non-profit organizations. Actor Michael Rooker – whose dozens of movie and television credits include “JFK,” “Days of Thunder,” “Cliffhanger” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” – bid $22,000 on a replica of a field kit used by U.S. Army Ranger legend Gary O’Neal in Vietnam.

During the evening, Legion partner Soldier’s Wish and nonprofit group The Independence Fund collaborated to present Legionnaire Fred Kubitz with an all-terrain chair. Kubitz – the chaplain at Post 20 in Sterling, Colo., and a volunteer county service officer – is an Army veteran who suffers from severe hip injuries connected to his service. He has one prosthetic hip and is facing the onset of osteoporosis in the other.

Kubitz, who will receive his custom-made chair in April, called his new mode of transportation “beyond a life changer. I can get around in my wheelchair, but it gets bogged down on certain surfaces, and you can only go so far before your arms get tired. I was able to take a chair like this elk hunting last year.”    

Remington Defense was the event’s industry sponsor, while other sponsors included the Stars and Stripes Foundation, Law Enforcement United, America’s Mighty Warriors, Lone Survivor Foundation, Honor The Fallen, Stand By the Wounded, Operation K9 and NSWKids.

An online raffle that ended Jan. 16 and involved the Legion and seven other veteran/law-enforcement support charities raised nearly $20,000, said Phil Strader – president of the United States Practical Shooting Association, which hosted the raffle on its website. The raffle raised approximately $3,200 for Legion programs.