Marilyn Thorbjornsen – Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army

Saying goodbye to the beloved ‘Mrs. T’

Horizon flag ceremony coincides with military burial at Arlington Monday, September 10, 2007By PAT NEWCOMBTimes Staff Writer, [email protected]

MADISON, ALABAMA – On August 30, Marilyn Thorbjornsen received one of highest honors the Army can pay one of its former soldiers – a full military burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

That same day, Horizon Elementary School paid another tribute to Thorbjornsen, a beloved teacher there. That morning, the school’s sixth-grade class gathered at the flagpole in front of the school and watched as the Bob Jones High Air Force JROTC unit raised the American flag in Thorbjornsen’s memory.

As the JROTC cadets assembled, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Randy Herd, the unit’s commander, explained the ceremony for “Mrs. T,” as the students called her.

“Respect is when you like something very, very much,” Herd said. By honoring the American flag, the students would honor their teacher.

“In doing so, you respect Mrs. T,” who was one of the first women trained to fly a UH-1 Huey helicopter. After her first child was born, Thorbjornsen began working in military intelligence and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. She then decided to become an elementary school teacher and would have been at Horizon 10 years this December.

Her death in June shocked Horizon’s faculty and students. Thorbjornsen was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2005 and had a double mastectomy. She was doing well and in remission when she had reconstructive surgery in June. She died of a suspected blood clot. She was 55.

When students began returning this school year, many wanted to know how the school planned to honor their teacher, said Jennifer Lee, who taught fifth grade with Thorbjornsen last year. Several teachers formed a committee to decide how to remember Mrs. T, and they decided to hold the flag ceremony on the day of her burial at Arlington. Several more tributes are planned this year, including dedicating the school yearbook to her, said Carolyn Hale, a Horizon teacher who is chairing the committee.

At the flag-raising ceremony, the Bob Jones color guard raised the flag as a boom box played reveille, followed by the national anthem. Students stood silently and solemnly, a few crying.

“She was more like a friend than a teacher,” Chima Enyinda said after the ceremony. He was in Mrs. T’s fifth-grade class last year.

“If you weren’t getting something, she would take time to try to help.”

She had big expectations of her students, Chima said. He used to have behavior problems, but Mrs. T straightened him out.

“She sat me down and talked to me,” he said. “Somehow, she just taught me how to be better.”

Mrs. T also discovered her students’ strengths and encouraged them, Mark Reuter said. He is also a former student.

She got us to start writing, and I found out I liked narrative writing,” he said. Mark is now working on a book that is sort of a Harry Potter goes to space. If he gets it published, he plans to dedicate it to his teacher.

It was important to have the flag ceremony on the same day Mrs. T was to be buried at Arlington, Jean Butler said. The Horizon kindergarten teacher was a good friend of Thorbjornsen and one of four teachers who traveled to Virginia for the burial.

“It showed what an influence and how important and respected she was here at school,” Butler said.

The ceremony at Arlington, with its full honor guard and 21-gun salute, was beautiful and “heart-wrenching,” she said.

Jennifer Lee also attended the burial at Arlington, along with teachers Amy Cypert and Rhonda Gierow. Lee’s husband, Army Major William Lee, presented Thorbjornsen’s son, Lee, with the flag that covered his mother’s casket. Lee Thorbjornsen is an airman 1st class in the Air Force and was in dress uniform for his mother’s service.

“There was not a dry eye,” Jennifer Lee said.

At the school, Mark was glad to see the flag raised in his teacher’s memory.

“It says she is gone, and we’re happy that she was a great teacher.”

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