■ BY MARY BESS
We need to understand the spark of divinity within human beings who put their lives at risk to benefit others. Of particular interest are those who commit acts of heroism for which they will not be honored and may even be vilified, despised and ostracized.
Especially on Veterans Day, helicopter reconnaissance pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew come to mind. Their chopper was hovering over My Lai on March 16, 1968 when they saw what looked like a massacre taking place. Civilians – old men, women, even children, were being herded into a ditch and shot. Thompson brought down the chopper and warned U. S. soldiers that if they didn’t stop shooting civilians, he would turn his guns on them. Strangely, there wasn’t much screaming coming from the victims. Later it was learned that their tongues had been cut out to prevent screams. Pregnant women had been bayonetted through the belly. The lucky ones, according to Thompson, were those “who took a round right through the brain. There was a lot of evil.” This is not to say that the perpetrators of these war crimes weren’t victims themselves. A full account of the massacre can be found in “The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story,’” by Trent Angers.
Thompson reported the incident in a tearful rage when he returned to headquarters. When charges were brought against 26 officers and enlisted soldiers, including William Calley and Ernest Medina, he testified against them. They were acquitted or pardoned.
Thompson was shunned and condemned by the military, the government and the public for his whistleblowing. Congressman Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) actually said Thompson was the only person at My Lai who should be punished and unsuccessfully tried to have him court- marshaled for turning his guns on fellow soldiers. People made death threats and left mutilated animals on his porch. Subsequent to My Lai he suffered post traumatic stress, bouts of alcoholism and severe nightmare disorder. He was married and divorced several times. Although the military abandoned him for telling the truth, he did not abandon the military, serving until 1983. He died in 2006 at age 62 with his surviving crew member Lawrence Colburn at his side.
Anyone who thinks whistleblowing is an easy road is mistaken. Thompson told the Associated Press in 2004, “Don’t do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come.” Chelsea Manning, who was obligated by law under the Geneva Convention to report the murder of civilians gunned down by a U. S. Apache helicopter crew as they attempted to remove the dead and injured from an Iraqi street, was imprisoned in August 2013 for reporting the war crime as he was required to do. By doing so, according to the military, he was “disrupting good order and discipline” and “discrediting the armed forces.” Prosecutors did not present any evidence that the leaks caused harm to anyone. She served more than seven years of a 35-year sentence.
In 1998, 30 years after the My Lai massacre, Thompson and his crew were awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving contact with the enemy. In 1999 Thompson and Colburn received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.
Why did Thompson continue to speak out instead of going along with the subsequent coverup? At least two factors would seem to have influenced his behavior. His grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, whose ancestors were victims of ethnic cleansing under the Indian Removal Act. He was raised an Episcopalian in a working class family that condemned ethnic discrimination and aided minorities within the community.
My Lai became a symbol for everything wrong with our presence in Vietnam when Army veteran Ron Ridenhour and Dispatch News Service reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story. Because My Lai is the only massacre from the Vietnam era to gain wide notice, it is thought to be an anomaly. It wasn’t. Hersh reports that, on a recent trip to Vietnam, he learned that massacres of civilians like the one that took place at My Lai were not unusual.
A study by the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that there have been 10 civilian deaths for every soldier death in wars fought since the mid-20th century. Practically speaking, civilians have become the enemy. Hugh Thompson reached out to enemy civilians in recognition that we are all one.
Mary Bess is a Boca Grande resident.