On December 17 the New York Times carried news of the death of Lawrence Colburn. He was one of three men who stopped the massacre of civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Horrific in scale and shocking in its violation of American values, international law, and basic humanity, the massacre stunned the nation when it came to light. Yet the massacre might have been far worse, but for the heroism of helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, gunner Larry Colburn, and crew chief Glenn Andreotta.
Charged with using his helicopter to draw enemy fire away from US troops on the ground, Thompson soon realized that the only shooting was being done by Americans, and that something was terribly wrong. He landed his chopper between the troops and helpless civilians, and together he, Colburn, and Andreotta risked their own lives in the face of what can only be described as lunacy and evil.
Thirty-four years later, Emory professor David Blumenthal, the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies, nominated Thompson and Colburn to receive honorary degrees from the University (Andreotta, the third member of the helicopter crew, had been killed in action three weeks after My Lai). Professor Blumenthal has long been an advocate for recognizing those who stand, courageously and sometimes alone, against tall odds in the face of oppression, barbarity, and the trampling of humanity. On May 13, 2002, Thompson and Colburn received the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, while the citation below was read.
The President, Trustees, and Faculty of Emory University
take pleasure in honoring
HUGH THOMPSON and LAWRENCE COLBURN
Heroes and Healers of the Wounds of War:
On a beautiful March morning in 1968,
ordinary people much like us committed unspeakable evil,
but you and your fellow crew member, Glenn Andreotta—
also ordinary people much like us—
transcended fear and chaos to save the lives of the innocents,
and thereby to rescue honor and right and
hope for the human capacity to choose the good.
From among the bodies lying dead in a ditch,
you lifted up a living child, whom now, in his adulthood,
you continue to help toward a fuller, happier existence.
From the cinders of the burning village
and the ruins of the blood-soaked streets,
you lifted up a reminder for us, in a violent and savage world,
that some things are worth risking death for,
many fewer are worth killing for,
and blessed is the heart that knows the difference.
Today we are honored to confer on you
the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Rest in peace, valiant soldier, defender of our humanity. And may the rest of us ordinary people—much like you—rise to the occasion when the defense of humanity calls us.