Behind the iron mask: Airman builds heroic persona to help others

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christopher Reel
  • 1st Combat Camera Squadron
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Beneath every superhero’s mask is an individual who enters society with a mission to leave it better than he or she found it.

Iron Man is one of the many superheroes who not only lives in comic books, but also thrives on the big screen, and is seen as a hero to many.

Tech. Sgt. Brian Thornton, a 628th Air Base Wing Air Defense Council paralegal, didn't know that his idea, much like Tony Stark's, would put him behind a red and gold mask to help make the world a better place.

After an idea, countless sketches, many hardware store runs, hours of dedication mixed with times of frustration, and ten months of hard work -- Thornton finally finished his very own Iron Man suit.

"Everybody thought I was kind of crazy," Thornton said. "But I finally built the armpiece, and it looked pretty good. I then started with the bicep, and I just went one piece at a time and then the next thing you know, I had the whole suit."

"There were no blue prints and no directions to making this thing; and since it took so long, I would get frustrated," Thornton said. "I used paper, car bondo, Plexiglas, nuts, bolts and anything I could find in the garage."

Making the suit proved to be a challenge, but the Thorntons had a goal fueling their motivation to complete the suit.

"When I began to see the potential this suit had, I told my wife I wanted to go to (the) Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital," Thornton said. "I wanted to go see the children and try to brighten their day. That ended up being the driving force to finish this project. …I did quit for a few weeks here and there over the ten months, but I kept thinking back to once it's finished, I can go to M.U.S.C."

Once the suit parts were completed, the next big challenge was figuring out how to put them on. Luckily for Thornton, his wife was there to help.

"I'm pretty much J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System: Tony Stark's computerized assistant)," said Thornton's wife, Joy. "I assemble him, I take him out of it and I lead him where he needs to go. At first, it would take more than 45 minutes to get the suit on him, but the more and more we make visits … the easier it gets."

Looking back to the beginning of Thornton's Iron Man project, Joy had her doubts.

"When he first told me his idea, I told him he lost his mind," Joy said. "I told him he wouldn't get it done; I had a lot of doubt. I'm usually the 'putter-together' in the family. We get new furniture -- I put it together and he walks out of the room. But, he obviously proved me wrong. I'm very proud of him."

What started off as a one man project, turned into a family mission.

"My son would help me out in the garage with sanding and painting, and my wife was always encouraging me," Thornton said. "My wife puts the Iron Man (suit) on me every time we make a visit somewhere. I couldn't do this without her."

Since completing the suit, they've gone to the children's hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, their child's school and a deployed spouses' dinner on Joint Base Charleston.

"We hope by doing this we can affect somebody's life in a positive way," Joy said. "That there might be a kid that is sick and Iron Man might be what brightens his or her day or brings hope that things will get better. When we go into a classroom to see the little kids, knowing some might be having a bad day, struggling with classes or have problems at home, we hope to make a personal connection between Iron Man and them to help make their lives better."

When the sergeant isn't working as Iron Man, he is in his other superhero suit -- an Air Force uniform.

Thornton's job in the Air Force is to help defend Airmen who have been accused of a crime.

"There are people out there that do bad things and there are people that don't but are accused, and I like that he gives them a chance to try to save their life and career," Joy said. "He's just too humble to say it himself. He's saved many Airmen's careers whose lives would be ruined if it wasn't for him and the team of attorneys."

Regardless of which duty may call, the Thorntons are always ready to make the world a better place.