Friday, January 13, 2006

Musings 98--Death of a real American Hero

Maybe it is because I'm getting old and cranky, but I get tired of hearing people being called heroes when they are just doing their jobs. Heroes go above and beyond, and, many times, are unpopular in what they do. Heroes often aren't around after they do their heroic acts due to the fact that they risk all and usually lose all by doing such an act. As far as I know, there is no job title of "hero"--except for Batman and Superman of comic book fame.

On January 6, 2006 a genuine American Hero died. His name was Hugh Thompson and he passed from the scene quietly and without the world taking much notice. Real heroes tend to leave us this way. (See Link)

In 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was a helicopter reconnaissance pilot flying over the villages and hamlets of South Viet Nam. On March 16, 1968, Thompson and his two man crew were flying over the village of My Lai. They noticed that there were a lot of bodies lying around and that there was no fire coming up at them from the ground.

Thompson landed his chopper and immediately saw that he had landed in a real live nightmare of destruction. He saw American soldiers shooting unarmed civilians at point blank range. Men, woman and children were slaughtered by U.S. troops led by Lt. William Calley. (The army said that 20 civilians were killed in search and destroy mission, but it was later shown that as many as 500 civilians probably were massacred at My Lai.)

Thompson looked over and saw a group of civilians huddling in a bunker. He asked Lt. Calley how he planned to get them out, and Calley said "with a grenade."

Now knowing that the situation was completely out of control, Thompson, who had set his helicopter down between the troops and the villagers, ordered his two crew members to fire their M60 machine guns on any American troops that tried to kill the remaining villagers.

There was, no doubt, a test of will between Lt. Calley and Warrant Officer Thompson, but the firing stopped. Thompson and his men then waded into ditches of mud, blood and gore and got out as many survivors as they could find. They then flew these survivors to the hospital.

The army covered up the story for two years. Lt. Calley was the only soldier sentenced to prison. He served three years of a life sentence before being let out on appeal on the instructions of President Richard Nixon.

Hugh Thompson testified before Congress and was called a hero by some and a traitor by others. The army and the Congress could not get past the fact that he had ordered his men to fire on other soldiers. Even though they did not fire a shot and won the game of stare down with Lt. Calley, there were those in the military and Congress who declare Calley a hero and Thompson a traitor.

Thomson said in an interview, years later, that he was glad that Calley's troops had stopped firing and that he and his men had not had to fire on other American troops. All those years later, he still felt it had been the right thing to do.

A long time ago a journalism teacher of mine said, "If you suspect an injustice, can you help but seek it out?" Hugh Thompson made a decision in the heat of the moment that made him a hero in the eyes of all who care about right and wrong--even, I dare say, in the eyes of God.

President George Bush and VP Dick Cheney could take some lessons from Hugh Thompson about right and wrong.

Hugh Thompson died of cancer at the age of 62.


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