On a War Hero

We throw around the word “hero” fairly casually these days (I did exactly that in yesterday’s post, in fact). Colonel Jim Thompson absolutely deserves the word “hero” as a descriptor. Colonel Jim died 21 years ago after dedicating his life to the service of his nation in the United States Army.

Born in New Jersey in the 1930s, Jim was too young for World War II but wanted to be in the army. When Jim was finally old enough, he joined up in the 1950s; he went to Officer Candidate School and found that he loved the military. He decided that the Green Berets would be the unit for him. After a stint as an Green Beret instructor, Jim also did a tour of duty in South Korea.

As the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict began to expand in the mid-1960s, Jim was one of the first officers to go over to southeast Asia. The Americans needed the expertise of Green Berets like him, so Jim was assigned a 6-month tour of duty in that theater. However, Jim ended up being in Vietnam a total of almost nine years. Yes, you read that correctly. Jim was in theater almost nine years.

Later, in interviews, Jim related that he really hadn’t heard of Vietnam before his tour began. Yet, his time there became the defining experience of his life. During his 9 years, Jim suffered wounds to his face, he broke his back in a plane crash, and he was burned at least once. Also, during his time abroad, much changed in the US military and in the nation as a whole. The United States that Jim left in 1964 was not the same place he returned to in 1973.

Because of his meritorious service during the conflict, Jim was awarded a slew of medals. Among these citations were the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Service Medal. When he finally returned home from duty, Jim also received his promotions to Lt. Colonel and then full “bird” Colonel because of his time in Vietnam.

But being in-country for almost a decade had taken its toll on Jim. Like so many other men of his generation (and most generations that go through war), Jim could not make the transition back to life outside of wartime. He suffered from what we now know was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He began having terrible night terrors. He drank heavily. His personal relationships suffered. He became more and more detached from family and friends.

The price Jim paid to serve his nation was a high one.

You will often hear veterans and other say, “All gave some, and some gave all” referring to those soldiers who lost their lives in the war as well as those who suffered from it one way or another. Well, in many ways, Jim was as much a casualty of the Vietnam War as a person who died there.

I’d like to say everything turned out ok with Jim, but that simply isn’t true. A stroke left him paralyzed on one side in his later years and forced his retirement from the military. He died alone in his home in Florida at the age of 69.

What you don’t know about Jim’s time in Vietnam is that the 6-month deployment that turned into 9 years wasn’t Jim’s choice. In fact, it was absolute hell for him.

That’s because for those 9 years he was in Vietnam, Jim Thompson was one of the longest-serving Prisoners of War that the United States has ever had.

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