Oct 10, 2009

What is a Hero?

October 10/2009

The word hero is thrown around so much. People get caught up in sports figures, actors, politicians and others as heros. But the best description of a hero came from an internet dictionary that described a hero as: “A man or a woman distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility of purpose and strength, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, and the will for self sacrifice for a greater good. So the hero is an ordinary person doing extra-ordinary things.” We all have it in us to do what is right. However, many of us do what is wrong.

There was a hero, an American hero. A man named Hugh Thompson. He died a couple of years ago. We could have brushed shoulders with him. He was a helicopter pilot – a captain of men in his charge.

It was a day like any other, but just different enough to make a real difference in the lives of so many. And it change the course of history.

Captain Thompson and his crew were flying a reconnaissance mission over a Vietnamese village when he heard gun fire below. He decided to investigate. As they landed they found a scene, so dreadful that it defied comprehension. American soldiers were firing on unarmed citizens. Women and children. Babies. Old men, old women. People were lying dead in ditches, fields and on roads. Some who weren’t dead were being systematically shot by a company Captain.

Thompson and his men entered the village and confronted a Lieutenant who was preparing to blow up a hut full of cowering and wounded Vietnamese. He ordered his own men to cover the company with their heavy machine guns and orders them to fire on any American who refused the orders to halt the systematic massacre. None of the officers dared disobey, yet Thompson was outranked by all the commissioned lieutenants. Thompson then ordered two other helicopters to ferry the wounded Vietnamese to hospital. Some children who were still alive were extracted from the bodies and taken with the rest of the Vietnamese to the hospital.

The village was called My Lai. It was a massacre of over 500 unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly.

Lt. William Calley had ordered his men to enter the village firing, and according to eyewitness reports, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and then killed. Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a rain of machine gun fire.

There was a trial and one man, Lt. Calley was convicted. He testified that he was ordered by his Captain to kill everyone in the village. Until Captain Hugh Thompson and his men arrived on the scene, there was no one to stop them. They saved the lives of hundreds.

So was this man a hero? Some said no.

For years, the U.S. military tried to cover up the My Lai massacre, and Hugh Thompson was treated not as a hero, but as a traitor, an outcast, a turncoat, because he had dared to question his fellow GIs who said they were just following orders. Thompson got death threats.

When Thompson testified about the murders to Congress in 1970, his testimony was kept secret. He said they didn’t want the story out, and one of the senior Congressmen in the secret testimony said, “... if anybody goes to jail here today, it'll be that helicopter pilot.”

There is a huge difference between right and wrong and the cover up of corruption. It was the ability of these men, Thompson and his crew, to do the right thing, even at the risk of their personal safety, that guided these soldiers to do what they did. This story was enough to turn the tide of the Vietnam war. Within couple of years the war was over.

On March 16, 1998, Captain Thompson and his crew were invited to My Lai where they were recognized by the Vietnamese government for their valor. They were given letters and gifts and thanked by the survivors, and the people in the area.

They were invited for a feast by the people of My Lai and a lady at the table turned to Captain Thompson and asked, “Why didn't any of the ones who participated come?” Thompson didn’t know what to say, he was so ashamed. He asked her, “Why, would you want to see them?” "So we could forgive them." She said.

To me, someone who can forgive others for such atrocities, is also a hero.

"One can not always be a hero, but one can always be a human."

- Johnann Wolfgang von Goeth

"Show me a hero and I will write a tragedy."

F. Scot Fitzgerald

"That's what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong, that decency will somehow triumph in the end."

- Lise Hand