Collection: 50 Personal Stories of Tucson Veterans | Local News
Johnny thompson considers himself lucky.
The 68-year-old man suffers from fainting spells and his short-term memory is affected.
A double vision torments him. Sometimes he has trouble speaking. “I am really losing words,” he said.
On good days, he can walk with a slight limp. On a bad step, he cannot take a step without the safety and security of a walker.
He completed three tours of duty in Vietnam and each earned him a Purple Heart. He still carries a steel bullet – a perforating bullet – in a place so precariously close to the left vertebral artery and his spine that a doctor warned him to never be more than 40 minutes from a hospital. .
This guy ? Fortunate?
“I always feel like the most blessed person in the world,” says Thompson.
Because, of course, he came home.
The veteran’s blessings include strong faith in God, three children – all of whom live within 15 minutes of his home in Marana – nine grandchildren and his 47-year-old wife, Gay. He may pick up his cell phone and not remember who he wanted to call, but he can describe the day he first saw her, in a polka dot dress, at a church rally in Texas then. that they were teenagers.
You would never know Thompson’s problems just by looking at him. He is friendly, gracious, and has a playful sense of humor.
“He’s dedicated, he’s compassionate – he’s just a good man,” said Andrew Bowers, an army veteran who met Thompson through their church. “His heart is shining. He has a smile on his face all the time. He’s positive, he’s optimistic. These evils do not hold him back. He’s got his bad days guaranteed – he won’t let him stop him.
He did. Once.
In the darkest moment of his life, Thompson admits he was suicidal, so depressed he could only sit on the couch. His body was shaking with fits, and his memory and his speech continued to fail.
A mistaken diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at the age of 41 made him live his life in increments of one to two years. Now doctors know that a traumatic brain injury, coupled with the side effects of the drugs, caused her problems.
Despite his injuries, Thompson spent nearly three decades in the military, assigned to several different units, including Special Forces, and reached the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. Even in retirement, he devoted himself to the army – and more particularly to those who served. inside.
People come to Thompson, asking him to find out about their fathers or uncles or grandfathers who have passed away. They want him to fill in the blanks because the veterans at the time just didn’t talk about what happened in the war.
This lack of communication, associated with a 1973 fire at the United States’ National Personnel Records Center in a Missouri suburb that erased millions of official military personnel records, makes it even more difficult for parents to trace a background.
The Thompson are scouring the internet, finding out what they can. When they find out that a veteran has won a medal, Johnny will find a replacement for the family. He types out stories while Gay even recreated embroidered battleship patches.
The two also hold traveling military history exhibits that have been featured across the state at conventions and churches.
Some of Thompson’s Vietnam War memorabilia are now on display in Tempe (see box top right). Thompson came up with the idea when he brought memorabilia to the local veterans hospital about four years ago. He watched the eyes of the other patients light up as he passed around an unarmed dart shell.
He has managed to acquire so much that three of the six bedrooms in Thompson’s house are devoted to military memorabilia. Even the one dedicated to the grandchildren’s slumber parties is overrun with documents and uniforms.
Down the hall from the upstairs bedrooms, framed prints of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall decorate a living room.
Thompson chokes when he shows the names of two soldiers in his unit.
“The only thing you can’t stand about war is the people you can’t save,” he said softly. “These are the ones you lose – these are the strongest memories you have.”
Thompson’s own medals and ribbons fill a shadow box on the wall, but he won’t talk about it.
“A lot of people don’t get anything when they should have had it,” he says.
The son of an Army Air Corps experimental test pilot who helped design helicopters, Thompson was only 16 when he enlisted. A doctor realized he was a minor and blew his whistle. Fearless, Thompson enlisted again the following year.
After graduating from flight school, and although he had a wife and young children, Thompson volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“I could save people,” he said. “I knew I could help people.
The master helicopter pilot ended up completing three tour duty in Vietnam and although the role of the United States was controversial, Thompson had and still has no qualms.
“Free the oppressed. I believe in it with all my heart. “
His third and final tour of Vietnam was the worst.
“We went with 83, 84 guys,” he says. “Only 22 returned home.”
Thompson himself barely succeeded.
He remembers the mission he carried out on May 19, 1971, Ho Chi Minh’s birthday and two days after his own. It was the one he had flown solo several times before, but on this occasion it was in a new Huey helicopter – and with a co-pilot. Having Captain Bob Jorgensen with him that day saved his life.
“I was down there looking for footprints,” Thompson recalls. He was hanging out in front of the helicopter door, looking for signs of the enemy when more than 150 bullets shelled the helicopter as mines exploded from below.
“I was just squirting blood from my neck,” says Thompson. “When I was hit, I lost control of the Huey. It was straight up in the air.
Two bullets slit Thompson’s throat, hitting the vocal cords and larynx and almost completely slitting a vertebra. Discs on his back were crushed by explosions under the helicopter.
Thompson passed through six or seven hospitals on his way home. “Everywhere I went, everyone was saying, ‘How are you still alive?’ “
Thompson does what he can to make every minute count, which is why he devotes so much time and effort to researching the military histories of his fellow veterans.
Even with Gay’s help, it’s painstaking work. “It takes us a month what others could do in two days.”
Thompson can spend four or five hours researching and writing down what he learns. But the next day, this knowledge is lost. Completely erased from his memory. He must reread everything and familiarize himself with the work of the day before.
It’s frustrating, yes, Thompson admits. But that doesn’t discourage him at all.
“I will continue until I no longer know I am doing this.”