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My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

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My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

History

My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

My Lai Soldier: Apology Could Answer Survivors

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Former Army officer Lawrence Colburn greets My Lai Massacre survivor Do Ba in 2008. Chitose Suzuki/AP hide caption

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Chitose Suzuki/AP

Former Army officer Lawrence Colburn greets My Lai Massacre survivor Do Ba in 2008.

Chitose Suzuki/AP

William Calley remained silent for 40 years about his role in the My Lai massacre, one of the worst atrocities in the history of American warfare. His apology last week may not be too late, says another American soldier, one of three to be honored for trying to stop the tragedy.

"It depends on what he does from this point forward," Lawrence Colburn tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Colburn was a gunner on a helicopter with pilot Hugh Thompson and crew chief Glenn Andreotta. During the massacre, the three landed their helicopter between a group of Vietnamese civilians and U.S. troops who were preparing to fire on them.

"If he would somehow be able to make the trip back to My Lai and face the survivors and apologize there, face to face, it would be a healthy thing for him to do," Colburn says.

Colburn, Thompson and Andreotta were providing air support and reconnaissance for ground troops the day of the massacre. It had been relatively quiet. Some people were leaving a village via a main road — a good idea to get out of the area, Colburn thought.

When they returned to the village later that day, they knew something was wrong.

The people were still on the road, Colburn says. "But they were dead, or dying. Mainly women, children, elders."

And Americans were killing them. The helicopter crew saw an American captain shoot a woman they had marked earlier for medical attention. In horror, they realized the smoke indicators they had used earlier that day to call aid to the injured had also given away the villagers' position.

Lt. William L. Calley Jr. in April 1971, during his court-martial at Fort Benning, Ga. Joe Holloway Jr./AP hide caption

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Joe Holloway Jr./AP

Lt. William L. Calley Jr. in April 1971, during his court-martial at Fort Benning, Ga.

Joe Holloway Jr./AP

NPR's Robert Siegel Talks To Al Fleming, A Friend Of William L. Calley

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Calley was the only U.S. Army officer convicted in the 1968 slayings that left hundreds of unarmed civilians dead. He was given a life sentence that was later commuted by President Richard Nixon.

Colburn was awarded a Bronze Star and the Soldier's Medal — the Army's highest honor for bravery not involving combat — for his role in saving some of the civilians. Thompson and Andreotta were also honored.

Last week, Calley spoke publicly for the first time about My Lai. At a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus, Ga., he said, "Not a day goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened."

The apology is an opportunity for Calley to face the survivors themselves, Colburn says. Colburn and Thompson have since traveled back to the Quang Ngai province, where the massacre took place, and the survivors have often asked the same question.

"They wanted to know why the people who committed the atrocities didn't come with us in order to ask forgiveness — so they could be forgiven," Colburn says.

"Mr. Thompson always had a hard time wrapping his head around that," Colburn says. "He couldn't understand how these people, that were so directly violated, could forgive the people who killed their family members."

But perhaps Calley could answer the survivors' questions, Colburn says. "If he's truly remorseful, it's an opportunity for him to seek that forgiveness — and chances are he will be forgiven."