A hero in the face of atrocity
An American hero, Hugh Thompson, died last week.Who was Hugh Thompson? In March 1968, helicopter pilot Thompson, together with crew members Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, landed between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, to intervene in what had been a massacre of the Vietnamese citizens by American forces. Following is a quote from a CNN interview with Thompson in 1998:”It was clear to us that something was going wrong … at one time we had asked for assistance on a wounded civilian and a captain walked up and shot the girl we’d asked assistance for. Another time, we’d seen an irrigation ditch full of bodies … some were still living. We landed and talked to the Americans on the ground, said there are some wounded civilians in the ditch, can you help them out. And we were told, yes, we’ll help them out of their misery. I said, quit joking, how bout helping them, and they said OK. As I took off, they walked to the ditch, and we heard machine-gun fire. Glen Andreotta, in a shocked-type voice, said, “My God, they are firing into the ditch.” That was two times we’d asked for help and got people killed. Shortly after, we saw some Vietnamese who had just made it to a bunker and were hiding… On the other side of the opening, we saw the American forces coming toward them. We just kind of figured those people were dead in about 15 seconds if we didn’t do something. That’s when we elected to land the aircraft between the American forces and the bunker.”While Colburn and Andreotta provided cover, pointing their own weapons at their fellow soldiers, Thompson confronted the leader of the U.S. troops. Thompson then coaxed the civilians out of the bunker to be evacuated, and assisted in the transport of surviving wounded to a hospital.It took 30 years for Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta to be honored for their actions. In 1998, the three men received the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. Andreotta’s medal was awarded posthumously; he died in combat three weeks after My Lai. At the ceremony, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman stated: “It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers … (they) set the standard for all soldiers to follow.”Whether or not we have learned any lessons in the almost 40 years since My Lai, whether or not the “standard” set by Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta is being lived up to, I leave it to each individual to decide. It’s my opinion, however, that their bravery most definitely involved conflict with an enemy – ignorance, prejudice and fear are the worst enemies we’ve got.Lore’ McLaren is a Truckee resident.
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