American soldiers in Vietnam unwittingly found themselves fighting a two-front war: an unseen enemy in the jungle and an even more difficult battle at home with a sharply divided public.
How ironic, then, that a war famous for atrocities committed by the enemy against its own people had an American infantry unit committing one of the worst atrocities of the war - the massacre of some 400-500 unarmed men, women and children rounded up and systematically executed at the village of My Lai by members of Charlie Company of the American Division's 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry.Unlike many of their comrades who have tried to hide from My Lai in a bottle or with drugs, two former members of Charlie Company say they are at peace with their actions that fateful day.
Michael Terry, Orem, has been able to put that infamous March 16, 1968, behind him. He said his strong religious convictions helped him cope with what he experienced.
Greg Olsen, who now lives in Seattle, spent 10 years growing up in Provo and buddied up with Terry in Vietnam. He was in Lt. William Calley's platoon, which was responsible for most of the killings. Like Terry, he says family and religious convictions helped him handle the horror.
"To me, My Lai was just something that happened," said Terry, who was drafted at the end of his sophomore year at Brigham Young University in March 1967. "I haven't read the books or dwelled on it," said the father of eight who lives in the same Orem neighborhood where he grew up.
Olsen said Charlie Company was different from other military units. "In my opinion, there were a lot of thugs in that company. I think we had a higher percentage of oddballs than we deserved. It takes a while to surface. Everybody looks the same with their haircut and green uniform," he said. Terry and Olsen, who attended LDS Church services together regularly, probably seemed out of place to others in the company.
Neither he nor Terry brutalized anyone that day, Olsen said. "Mike and I were fully aware of what was going on, and I think we understood the ramifications of putting up too much resistance to what was going on around us."
Like many of his peers, Terry didn't want to be drafted, but once he was, he decided to make the best of it. "I wasn't too excited about being drafted . . . thought my whole world had ended. I hated the system but figured that since I was going to be in the Army, I was going to give it my best shot."
In the fall of 1967, he entered long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) training at Scofield Barracks, Hawaii. It was there he became friends with Ron Ridenhour, a helicopter door gunner who landed at My Lai a few days after the massacre and was so appalled by it that he worked to get the story, and its ugly ramifications, out to a stunned American public.
After arriving on the central Vietnam coast in December 1967, the men of Americal found the war frustrating because of infrequent contact with the enemy, while still sustaining high casualties from booby traps and snipers.
That frustration ultimately led to the massacre. On March 14, a popular company sergeant and two others were killed by a booby-trapped 155mm howitzer round outside My Lai. Capt. Ernest Medina spoke at a memorial service the evening before the massacre and laid out plans for an all-out assault on My Lai.
"Now you're going to get your chance," Terry recalls Medina saying. "Basically he said everything in the village was fair game. Technically, he didn't say it, but he said it in so many words. In my mind, there was no question about what Medina wanted. I remember one guy trying to pin him down about shooting everything, but
he wouldn't come right out and say it."
Terry later testified in Army trials of Medina and Calley. Calley was the only one convicted. He served three days in prison before President Richard Nixon ordered him released on house arrest. Today he runs a jewelry store in Georgia.
Many of the guys didn't want to be there, Terry said. "A lot of them were flower children and were into drugs. I'll bet 50 percent of them were smoking marijuana."
Olsen was among the first flown by helicopter into My Lai. Terry among the last. By the time Terry's platoon arrived, the killing was largely over.
Terry recalls jumping off the chopper into tall grass and hearing much artillery and gunship suppression fire around the village. "There were a lot of people dead along the road. It seems a lot of the deaths were from artillery fire. When we saw the bodies, they were killed by artillery or gunships.
"People were running around every which way. We were there after Calley had gone through. At the time we left, we didn't know what had happened," Terry said.
The men of Charlie Company had been told the villagers would all be at a nearby market that morning and only Viet Cong would be in the village, so they were to expect stiff opposition.
"The villagers were warned to get out; I don't know why they were still there," Terry said.
"By the time it was through, I knew something was wrong because the resistance wasn't there," he said. "I got together later that day with Michael Bernhardt and Olsen. They were sick over it. They couldn't believe it happened. I was sick . . . they should have called it off."
Terry, a squad leader that day, ordered his men to take a lunch break near a ditch at the rear of the village. He had seen Calley and his platoon shoot into the ditch earlier and now noticed that there were no men in it - only women and children. "We shot and killed a couple that were wounded; we just assumed they would die. We shot them to put them out of their misery. It was the right thing to do."
Terry's recollections are even more vivid. He remembers Calley acting like a kid while shooting into the ditch. "It was a Nazi-type thing to do."
Terry, Olsen and others talked about the massacre among themselves that night, after the enormity of it sank in. Later that night, when Olsen and Terry were sitting alone under the stars, Olsen started singing a church hymn - "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again" - and Terry joined in.
"I don't dwell on My Lai. The only time I think about it is when somebody wants to talk about it. I don't recall a single nightmare over it," Terry said.
"I've sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had been a little bit more heroic once I realized what was going on. When I crossed this ditch and saw all those bodies and Calley standing there with a gun, maybe I could have made some kind of protest at that time," Olsen said.
After writer Seymour Hersh heard about the massacre, he interviewed dozens of former Charlie Company members, including Terry and Olsen. The publicity caught the attention of BYU officials, including the late President Ernest L. Wilkinson, since Terry had returned to the Y. after leaving the Army.
"I was called in by Ernie Wilkinson and several others to see what had happened. I think a couple of them thought what I had done was wrong. But I felt the Spirit had told me I did right. I was living right. That was the feeling I had - I was not feeling bad," said Terry, an active Mormon who has served in three bishoprics.
Olsen, whose family is active in the LDS Church, hasn't been to church since leaving Vietnam.