Visions of Valor exhibit honors heroes

Retired Col. Leo Thorsness speaks at the dedication ceremony for the Visions of Valor exhibit at the U.S. Air Force Academy's McDermott Library in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 3. Colonel Thorsness, a "wild weasel" pilot who flew an F-105 Thunderchief in the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor while held by the North Vietnamese Army as a prisoner of war. He was released from captivity March 4, 1973, and retired that October. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Retired Col. Leo Thorsness speaks at the dedication ceremony for the Visions of Valor exhibit at the U.S. Air Force Academy's McDermott Library in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 3. Colonel Thorsness, a "wild weasel" pilot who flew an F-105 Thunderchief in the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor while held by the North Vietnamese Army as a prisoner of war. He was released from captivity March 4, 1973, and retired that October. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and retired Col. Bernard Fisher unveil a portrait of Colonel Fisher during the Visions of Valor dedication at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 3. Pictured here (left to right) are Lt. Gen. John F. Regni, Academy superintendent; David McIntyre, CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, Colonel Fisher, Secretary Donley and retired Cols. Leo Thorsness and Joe Jackson. Colonels Fisher, Thorsness and Jackson are all Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: Colonel Fisher is the first living Airman to receive the Medal of Honor, which he received for heroism during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and retired Col. Bernard Fisher unveil a portrait of Colonel Fisher during the Visions of Valor dedication at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 3. Pictured here (left to right) are Lt. Gen. John F. Regni, Academy superintendent; David McIntyre, CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, Colonel Fisher, Secretary Donley and retired Cols. Leo Thorsness and Joe Jackson. Colonels Fisher, Thorsness and Jackson are all Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: Colonel Fisher is the first living Airman to receive the Medal of Honor, which he received for heroism during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Courage, sacrifice and patriotism are at the heart of a gift received by the Air Force Academy from TriWest Health Alliance. 

The "Visions of Valor" collection of black-and-white portrait photographs of 140 Medal of Honor recipients was presented April 3 at a ceremony in the McDermott Library. 

David McIntrye, chief executive officer with TriWest, expressed gratitude to the five Medal of Honor recipients who were present for their service. 

"Thank you for illuminating the path," he said, and noted the collection reflects the pride and sense of duty in such service. "Cadets will follow in footsteps of greatness." 

By a joint resolution of the Congress in 1862, the Medal of Honor is "... awarded in the name of Congress to a person who, while a member of the Armed Services, distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against any enemy of The United States ..." 

Speaking to the Medal of Honor recipients, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said, "All of you are true American heroes. These photographs are a wonderful homage to America's most revered heroes." 

At the ceremony, guests and Medal of Honor recipients included retired Col. Joe Jackson, who rescued a three-man Air Force combat control team in Vietnam; retired Col. Bernard Fisher, who held off hostile gun positions in the rescue of a downed pilot in Vietnam; former Army Sgt. Peter Lemon, who used machine gun and rifle fire, grenades and hand-to-hand combat in defense of a fire support base in Vietnam; and former Army Pfc. George Sakato, who led the assault to rescue members of the "Lost Battalion" from the Germans during World War II. 

Also on hand was honoree retired Col. Leo Thorsness, who was shot down in Vietnam on his 93rd mission while defending U.S. helicopters from North Vietnamese MiG fighters. He spent six years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. During his Medal of Honor perspective during the ceremony, Mr. Thorsness stressed many others also deserved to be honored. 

"We wear this for everyone," he said of the medal. "Everybody is just a regular guy. They trained well and did their job." 

Mr. Thorsness also reminded those present freedoms are not to be taken for granted. 

"We are so fortunate to have these rights," he said. "All of us are free to choose our professions, our jobs." 

He also reflected on the personal impact of his imprisonment. 

"I never truly have a bad day now. We're stronger than we think we are," he said. 

Also present was the photographer for the "Visions of Valor" portraits Nick Del Calzo, a Denver resident who started photographing Medal of Honor honorees in 1999 in cooperation with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. 

"It's an on-going process. I was on a plane every week, and it was fun," he said and added a small handful of recipients have yet to be photographed. 

The project required travel to 35 states. 

His first book and national exhibition "The Triumphant Spirit: Portraits & Stories of Holocaust Survivors" received high accolades from many sources, including CNN and the American Library Associations. His second book, "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty," features 116 Medal of Honor recipients. 

The journalist, public relations professional and photographer regards the project as his way of saying "thank you" to veterans. A self-described "fierce patriot," Mr. Del Calzo used national monuments as backdrops for a large number of the Medal of Honor portraits. 

"Our monuments are so meaningful and beautiful," he said. "I wanted to associate the images with the individuals." 

Among others, the Vietnam, Korean War and Lincoln memorials, Mount Rushmore and the White House have appeared in his photographs. 

"I wanted to preserve a sense of reverence for the meaning and value of the medal," he said. 

TriWest previously presented a "Visions of Valor" collection to the Pentagon, which now hangs in the Pentagon Library and Conference Center. 

Twenty of the 24-inch-by-30-inch Academy photographs were framed and on display during the presentation. Academy museum specialist Paul Martin said the remainder will be framed at a later date, and the Academy is exploring potential display areas. 

"We want these portraits to communicate the values of 'service before self' and patriotism to the cadets," Martin said. "We are considering locations in the cadet area for their permanent home." 

Fewer than 110 recipients are still living. A total of 3,447 Medals of Honor have been presented in the course of U.S. history.