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FROM: Leadership in Dangerous Situations : A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders. Edited by Patrick J. Sweeney, Michael D. Matthews, and Paul B. Lester (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011).


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On the morning of March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson JI. flew above the hamlet of Son My, near the village of My Lai in the Republic of Vietnam, in support of U.S. Army ground operations. His mission was dangerous but routine-provide reconnaissance for a battalion task force searching for enemy forces. What he saw and did that day, however, would irrevocably change his life.

The My Lai massacre is a well-documented stain on American military history: An infantry company led by Captain Ernest Medina, Lieutenant William Calley, and others entered Son My and systematically murdered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. Villagers were raped, bodies mutilated, children summarily executed in front of their parents. Seeing the carnage below; Thompson and his crew-Specialist Glenn Andreotta and Specialist Lawrence Colburn-placed their helicopter between American forces and the villagers. Thompson dismounted from his pilot's seat, then instructed his crew to cover him with machine-gun fire if the Americans began firing at the group of civilians he intended to help. He was aware that the order put him at risk of a court-martial or possible injury. Thompson coaxed several Vietnamese from a bunker and aboard evacuation helicopters and later evacuated a wounded young boy to a Vietnamese military hospital. Upon returning to base, he reported the massacre to his superiors, who immediately ordered an end to hostilities in Son My.

Commanders repeatedly tried to cover up the My Lai massacre. In a ploy to keep Thompson quiet, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day, though he later threw away the bogus citation because it stated his heroism was a result of withstanding "intense crossfire" between friendly and enemy forces. This of course was a lie. Subsequent investigations by the military and the media found that the villagers were unarmed, so there could have been no crossfire.

Thompson made his official report-he had witnessed American soldiers kill unarmed Vietnamese civilians-and he stuck by it despite intense pressure to recant. He repeatedly told his story to investigators and testified before the House Armed Services Committee. Committee members lambasted him for his actions, and Chairman Mendal Rivers of South Carolina stated that Thompson was the only person involved in the event who should be held accountable because he had turned his weapons against fellow Americans. Rivers even tried to have Thompson court-martialed, to no avail. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and Thompson received hate mail and death threats. Thompson's story, however, did not end with the investigation. He continued to fly in Vietnam and was shot down several times. He spent many months recovering in a hospital after breaking his back in a crash, but even that could not stop him. Thompson was commissioned and continued to fly in the Army, retiring in 1983 as a major. The immediate years following My Lai had been tough for him. He was constantly shunned by fellow officers, who considered him a turncoat.

The public's perception of Thompson began to change in the decades following My Lai. A letter-writing campaign gained traction, and he and his crew were eventually awarded the Soldier's Medal-the highest award for valor not involving enemy forces and a more poignant replacement of the Distinguished Flying Cross he had received during the attempted cover-up. He received numerous civilian honors for his actions at My Lai, including the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.

Thompson spoke of My Lai and battlefield ethics often and lectured at the United States Military, Naval, and Air Force Academies, though doing so took an emotional toll on him. Even after a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Thompson pressed on with his message: Common people can act with uncommon courage when necessary, and doing so can make a difference in the lives of many.