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'It's Something You've Got to Live With' : My Lai Memories Haunt Soldiers

March 13, 1988|GEORGE ESPER | Associated Press

A score of springs have come and gone since Paul Meadlo left Vietnam. But time has not dimmed his memory of My Lai.

"I got a permanent reminder," Meadlo said in a telephone interview from his home in Terre Haute, Ind. "I got my foot blowed off the very next morning. It must have been God's plan."

Meadlo was a 21-year-old rifleman on March 16, 1968, when Charlie Company swept through the village of My Lai and killed at least 175 men, women and children.

Granted immunity, he testified at the court-martial of his platoon leader, Lt. William L. Calley Jr., that he helped Calley shoot some of them because as far as he was concerned they were Viet Cong.

'I'm Still Bitter'

"It's just something you've got to live with," he said. "It's rough. Eventually you just got to cross it out of your mind and go on with your life."

Meadlo, now 41, said that when he first left the Army it was hard to get a job because of the loss of his right foot to a mine. "I'm still bitter about this forever."

He eventually landed a job with a company that makes plastic film and has been there nearly 20 years. He has a 20-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, both of whom are in the Army.

Four other men involved in My Lai were killed in action in the months afterward, including Lt. Col. Frank A. Barker of New Haven, Conn., who planned the operation.

Permanent Imprint

Like it has with Meadlo, My Lai left its imprint on the others who survived and forever changed their lives.

For Ernest L. Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, it meant the end of an Army career.

"I had to resign my commission and get out, setting aside 16 1/2 years of service," Medina said.

Even though he was acquitted in a court-martial, his career was ruined.

'Horrendous Thing'

Medina moved with his wife and three children to Marinette, Wis., in 1971. He worked as a salesman for a helicopter manufacturer for a time, but for 10 years has been in the real estate business. His two youngest sons are in the service.

Now 51, Medina looks back on My Lai as a "horrendous thing" that never should have happened.

"I have regrets for it, but I have no guilt over it because I didn't cause it," he said. "That's not what the military, particularly the United States Army, is trained for.

"But then again, maybe the war should have never happened. I think if everybody were to look at it in hindsight, I'm sure a lot of the politicians and generals would think of it otherwise. Maybe it was a war that we should have probably never gotten involved in as deeply as we did without the will to win it."

Many Unprepared

Medina said that in looking for the cause of My Lai, there is a need to look at the whole Vietnam War.

"It's just totally different," he said. "There were no front lines. It wasn't a conventional type war. It was a guerrilla war. It's something I feel a lot of draftees were not trained for, a lot of the officers were not trained. I'm talking not just about lieutenants. I'm talking about senior officers."

Another soldier who was court-martialed and acquitted, Charles Hutto, now lives with his family in Monroe, La., where he works as a television repairman. Now 39, he was a 19-year-old sergeant at My Lai.

Asked the lessons of My Lai, he said, "Give young boys time to grow up mentally before you send them to fight a war."

Overcame Drinking Problem

Hutto said he has overcome a drinking problem that developed as he tried "to cope with what happened in my life during that time and wondering how come it didn't happen to someone else. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

Calley, the central figure in My Lai, declined to talk to a reporter, maintaining the silence he has kept over the years. Now 44, he works in Columbus, Ga., with his father-in-law, V. V. Vick, owner of a jewelry store.

Calley, the only soldier convicted in the case, served three years under house arrest at Ft. Benning, Ga.

The man who exposed My Lai, Ron Ridenhour, was never there. Now 41, he is an investigative reporter for CityBusiness, a biweekly newspaper in New Orleans. He recently won a Polk Award for local reporting for a yearlong investigation of a city tax scandal.

Fear Over Disclosure

But 20 years ago, he was a door gunner on an observation helicopter that flew over the village a few days after the massacre. It was his conscience that drove him to disclose the massacre. But he waited for several months until he was out of the service because he feared for his life.

He learned what had happened at My Lai a month later when he was transferred to a long-range reconnaissance patrol and was reunited with half a dozen of his friends from training camp who had been at the village with Charlie Company. They told him the story.

In March, 1969, four months after his discharge, he sent letters to 30 military and congressional leaders detailing what he had been told.

"There's no question I had to turn in my friends," he said. "But it was that or be part of their crime. I believe, though, that they are also victims that maybe carried the brunt of what was really an official policy.

"I don't regret it. It exposed the truth. I didn't think people had massacres like My Lai in mind when they supported the war in Vietnam."

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