At noon of March 6, 1998, on the greensward adjacent to the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Government of the United States broke an official silence that had lasted twenty-four years. While a small crowd of veterans, friends, politicians, and journalists had gathered, no President or Vice-President, none of the leaders of government, civil or military, was there to take part in the deliberately modest ceremony about to begin. In fact, few in the national political and military establishments had wished it well, and some had worked against it. This reluctance needed no explanation, for it was simply understood in 1998, perhaps as even today, that public mention of the Vietnam War was unseemly.
Especially unwelcome, moreover, was any reference to the long-ago murder by American forces of 504 inhabitants of a South Vietnamese village known as My Lai. But letters had been piling up, and from important people, too, and by late 1997, to everyone’s surprise, the pressure had overcome bureaucratic dissembling.
Thus it was left to an Army Major General to tell the world that noonday of a singular act of astonishing goodness committed on another March day in a place far away in that most terrible of times, 1968. On March 16 of that year, over the northeast corner of South Vietnam, three young men -- ages 18, 20, and 24 -- flying a small, fragile, scout helicopter, witnessed a mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese villagers by young, poorly led, yet vengeful American soldiers. Infuriated and determined, the three decided as one to stop the massacre unfolding beneath them. Somehow they did this, and somehow they also rescued nine survivors. More, their subsequent protests frustrated plans for further slaughter that afternoon.
On that crisp March day in 1998, in a thirty minute commemoration of a thing thirty years past, the Department of the Army at last, grudgingly, acknowledged these men and their deeds. With the Vietnam Memorial as backdrop, the Major General awarded “The Soldiers Medal for Heroism Above and Beyond the Call of Duty...” to two middle-aged helicopter veterans of the Vietnam War, Lawrence Colburn and Hugh Thompson, with a third Medal awarded, posthumously, to their friend and crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, killed just weeks after the day of massacre and rescue.