Training for Integrity

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- March 16, 1968, Warrant Officer 1st Class Hugh Thompson Jr., a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, was flying reconnaissance for a counter-insurgency operation at a Vietnamese village named My Lai. As the operation progressed, Warrant Officer Thompson and his crew began noticing groups of dead and injured civilians, although they saw no evidence of armed resistance.

Warrant Officer Thompson radioed for help, marking the locations of the wounded with flares; his crew soon discovered, however, that wounded identified for medical treatment were being killed. When Warrant Officer Thompson realized American troops were doing the killing, he placed his aircraft between a group of fleeing villagers and a squad of soldiers apparently determined to murder them.

Warrant Officer Thompson ordered his gunner to train his weapon on the approaching soldiers and to fire if necessary. Then, he personally coaxed the civilians out of a shelter and airlifted them to safety. His crew chief also waded into a ditch full of dead bodies to save a small child.

Forced to choose in a moment between risking his life to protect those who may have been supporting his enemy¬¬ or safely tolerating the crimes of fellow soldiers, Warrant Officer Thompson choose to protect the defenseless. He defied his comrades and even superior officers.

Later, some attempted to excuse the killers' crimes by saying it was wrong to judge them without having been there. But Warrant Officer Thompson was there, and he chose not to permit further killing of unarmed civilians. He explained his decision simply, "We're trained better than that."

Few military professionals will ever face as difficult a decision as Warrant Officer Thompson faced at My Lai, but we do face moral choices on a regular basis. Some suggest that ethical shortcuts are inevitable. As professional Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians, I believe we would disagree with that attitude and proclaim, like Warrant Officer Thompson, "We are trained better than that."

Conscientious training can make the difference in correctly applying the rules to issues, big and small, that confront us in our paths. Gordon B. Hinckley, a favorite religious leader of mine, said years ago, "I should like to emphasize the importance of watching the little things in our lives. Have you ever noticed a large gate in a farm fence? As you open it or close it, there appears to be very little movement at the hinge. But there is great movement at the perimeter."

As many of us across Misawa undergo training in advance of upcoming deployments and the November Unit Compliancy Inspection, consider whether efforts with respect to training are a hinge, building the kind of character of integrity that will allow the gate of your impact to be positive when crises come. In completing checklists and inspections, take time for open-ended discussions of difficult issues that underlie the checklists.

I have been with the home of the Wild Weasel for just a few weeks, but I am convinced we are a morally and ethically sound force, striving to fulfill our motto of "Attack to Defend" with integrity. The quality of our training will continue to help make that so.