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A hero emerges out of the horrors of My Lai

As a war, Vietnam managed to slip most of the traditional categories.

It did not, as was the case with previous wars, unite the country but rather seriously divided it. The American generals who directed the war effort were never widely hailed as war heroes, and the soldiers who faced unspeakable terror in the jungles of Southeast Asia returned home to widespread public cynicism, angry demonstrations and general social disarray.

One of the lasting symbols of this foreign policy debacle and military failure was the My Lai Massacre, the slaughter of some 500 Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops 30 years ago.

If Vietnam was a source of embarrassment and shame, it arguably has also added a new layer to the American conscience. One can’t help but think that war will never be quite the same for Americans.

How can it be when one of the nobler moments of that war involved the heroism of then helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who put down in the middle of the My Lai slaughter and, training guns on the murdering U.S. troops, began rescuing the villagers who had not yet been killed.

Thompson, now of Lafayette, La., was honored recently with the prestigious Soldier’s Medal for his bravery.

Until recently, his story was little known, but it is a powerful affirmation that in the most horrible circumstances the best instincts of the human spirit can prevail.

On March 16, 1968, the 24-year-old Thompson and his two-man crew were to fly low over the village to draw fire so helicopters behind them could destroy the enemy with machine gun and rocket fire, according to a recent account in Lafayette’s The Daily Advertiser.

On approaching the village, however, the crew “spotted a young Vietnamese girl, injured and lying on the road,” a spot Thompson marked with a smoke grenade.

He and his crew radioed for help and were hovering nearby when they “watched in horror as an American Army officer walked up to the girl, flipped her over with his foot -- and shot her dead.” Then Thompson and his crew spotted the bodies of Vietnamese women, children and old men piled in an irrigation ditch.

Thompson landed and asked American soldiers to help the wounded. Instead, troops fired into the bodies.

“We wanted to find something that would point the blame to the enemy,” he told the Advertiser. “But it just didn’t work. It all added up to something we just didn’t want to believe.”

An old woman standing in a doorway, baby in arms and a child clutching her leg, caught his attention. “These people were looking at me for help, and there was no way I could turn my back on them,” Thompson recalled.

When he asked an officer in charge to help him get the villagers out, the officer replied that “the only help the villagers would get was a hand grenade,” according to Thompson.

Thompson said he then moved his chopper in front of advancing Americans and gave his gunner an order to train his M-60 on the American soldiers. If the Americans tried to harm the villagers, his crew members were to open fire.

Thompson radioed to two gun ships behind him, and together they airlifted a dozen villagers to safety.

He then flew back to the irrigation ditch where a crew mate saw something move. It turned out to be a 2-year-old boy still clinging to his dead mother. They took the shocked but uninjured child and flew him to a hospital. “I had a son at home about the same age,” said a very emotional Thompson.

He was honored March 6 in Washington, the result of the efforts of many, inside and outside the military, beginning with David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, who became aware of Thompson’s actions 10 years ago and has lobbied since to have the Army recognize him.

It is fitting that Thompson received the award in front of the Vietnam Memorial, as haunting in its granite lists of war dead as other memorials are boastful and triumphant.

Vietnam has set us new standards for remembering war -- and for celebrating heroes.

National Catholic Reporter, March 20, 1998