By Craig Unger
November 20, 1989 12:00 PM

On a summer night about two years ago, Al Fleming, who anchors the news on WLTZ-TV in Columbus, Ga., was awakened unexpectedly by a 1 A.M. phone call. It was a close friend, a Vietnam veteran still tormented by the war.

Fleming dressed and went to nearby Weracoba Park, where the two men walked for nearly two hours. “He talked about everything,” Fleming says. “About the horrors of combat, about being trained for a scorch-the-earth procedure he called Operation Elephant Walk. He has been through a lot. He’d like to forget. But he can’t.”

Fleming’s friend is a successful jeweler. At 46, he wears a three-piece suit instead of Army fatigues. His hair has thinned, he has put on weight, and he wears glasses now. But the boyish face is still recognizable. He is former Lt. William L. “Rusty” Calley.

It was 20 years ago this week that reporter Seymour Hersh broke the chilling story of the massacre of 347 Vietnamese in a village called My Lai. Twenty months earlier, he wrote, three platoons from Charlie Company—First Battalion, 20th Infantry—had helicoptered into the tiny hamlet 340 miles north of Saigon, where a Vietcong battalion was thought to be ensconced. Their orders were to destroy the village. Though they met no resistance, they began an orgy of raping and murder. Villagers were herded into ditches and machine-gunned—old men, women and babies alike. A young girl was raped with a bayonet.

Calley had led his troops that day and would later be convicted of killing 22 people during Charlie Company’s four-hour rampage. At one point, according to testimony at his trial, a 2-year-old baby crawled out of a pile of dead bodies; Calley caught the baby, threw it back into the ditch and shot it.

It is almost impossible today to reconcile the gruesome events of My Lai with the peaceful, prosperous life Calley has found. He is now a respected figure in Columbus. He has a family he loves, a fine home, a family-run business and membership in all the right clubs. His name means little to most younger Georgians. Those old enough to remember are inclined to forgive and forget.

“Calley is everyman,” says Sy Hersh, whose reporting on My Lai won a Pulitzer Prize. “Everyman with a small e.”

Columbus is a staunchly conservative town of nearly 180,000 people, where a huge billboard proclaims JESUS IS LORD. With landmarks like Arsenal Place and newsstand offerings like the Bayonet and Army Times, it sometimes suggests a military theme park. Nearby is sprawling Fort Benning, where Calley went through basic training and was later tried, convicted and held under house arrest.

There are more than 60,000 veterans in the city—not to mention the 100,000 population of Fort Benning—and it would be hard to find a populace more sympathetic to someone who has endured the trials of combat. But it would be a mistake to think of Calley today solely as a creature of the military. For many people in Columbus, Calley is just the neighborhood jeweler. In the only interview he has given to the press in recent years, the Columbus Ledger identified him simply as an expert on gems. If you buy an emerald, Calley said, “don’t wear it every day. Cherish it as one of the most valuable of colored gemstones to be worn on special occasions.”

Rusty, his wife, Penny, 42, and their 9-year-old son, William Laws Calley III, known as Laws, live in the affluent Wynnton neighborhood, where comfortable homes nestle on winding streets heavily wooded with magnolias and pines. Calley is not listed in the phone book, and if there is a street number on his redbrick house, it is not visible—the only apparent concessions to notoriety.

Shortly after he married Penny Vick in 1976, Calley began working at her father’s jewelry store, V.V. Vick, in Columbus’s Cross Country Plaza. Today, Calley, a certified gemologist, runs the store and is an affable presence around town. “You’ll never meet a nicer guy,” says a friend, A.L. Pendleton. “He’s always got time for a cup of coffee with you. And he’s got a sense of humor. Rusty will keep you laughing all the time.”

Calley owns two Mercedeses and wears a Rolex. He sends his son to private school. He and his wife are often seen at popular watering holes like Fleming’s Prime Time Grill and at the Big Eddy, an exclusive lakeside dining club in the Green Island area. “We’re proud of Rusty,” says Jack Mickle, a former Mayor of Columbus. “He stepped into this city and became a part of it.”

In his spare time, Calley follows football and auto racing. He enjoys staying home and helping his son do his homework. “He’s excellent with his family,” says Dr. James Evans, a friend. “He’s such a normal person. He just wants to be left alone.”

And that, his friends agree, is Calley’s problem. On every major anniversary of My Lai, at least one reporter treks to V.V. Vick’s to try to get him to break his 20-year silence on the subject. Co-workers reportedly use hand signals to warn him when a journalist is coming.

Not that Calley seems to need any help. When a reporter approaches, he seems to know it instinctively. Having already declined an interview request, he stands behind a jewelry counter, girding himself as if ready for combat. “You must be from the Japanese division,” he says brusquely. “You don’t understand English. I told you I don’t want to talk to you.”

Then he crosses his arms defiantly. “I’m just trying to do my job,” he says.

Those words, curiously, echo his defense at his trial. And there is truth in them. Rusty Calley has nearly always been unexceptional and so, seemingly, have been his aspirations. An upper-middle-class child of the ’50s, he grew up in Miami Shores, Fla., where his father was a salesman of heavy machinery who kept a country home in North Carolina. Young Rusty was a poor student—he had to repeat seventh grade after cheating on a test—and was sent away to the Florida Military Academy. But he was popular, and friends remember him fondly. “He always had a car, plenty of money and girlfriends,” says Lincoln Stone, now an artist in Marietta, Ga. “He has often been painted as a loser. But Rusty was a real ladies’ man. And his sense of loyalty was wonderful. If you had a problem at 3:30 in the morning, Rusty would be there for you.”

After graduating from high school in 1962, Calley enrolled in Palm Beach Junior College but soon left with poor grades and took a series of menial jobs. Then, in 1963, Calley went to work for the Florida East Coast Railway, first as a switchman, then as a conductor, bringing home up to $300 a week, a considerable sum at the time. But he quit when his parents fell ill and spent some time with them in North Carolina.

In 1965 Calley headed west. He enlisted in the Army in 1966, just as the Vietnam War was heating up. “He was one of those people, like most of us, who didn’t have a special calling,” says Stone. “And when he ended up in the military, he had found his calling. He liked the regimentation. He needed the discipline.

“When he became a lieutenant, it was the most important thing in the world to him. He wanted to do the best possible job. He didn’t go for a good time or for drugs. He was a soldier in the way a Marine is a soldier. He was going to fight Communism. He believed in the war. Absolutely.”

When they arrived in Vietnam, young men like Calley, fresh from officer candidate school, were often dismissed as “90-day wonders.” Calley was no exception. Only 5’3″ and unprepossessing in appearance, he seemed ill-suited to being a second lieutenant, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. “He didn’t have a lot of self-confidence,” says Michael Terry, a GI from Utah who served in Charlie Company. “He was gung ho, always trying to impress [Charlie Company’s commanding officer, Capt. Ernest] Medina by being a supertrooper.”

Some of Calley’s men were amazed that the Army considered him officer material at all. They ridiculed him for his inability to read topographic maps, for getting the company lost and for not always knowing the safest thing to do. After My Lai, Army officials found it convenient to join the chorus of skeptics and argue that Calley was an aberration. “A guy like him couldn’t even get commissioned today,” says Lt. Col. Mack Plummer, public affairs officer at Fort Benning.

But some thought Calley was no worse than other young officers. “He conducted himself well,” says Kenneth Hodges, a former sergeant in Charlie Company. “I wouldn’t say he was insecure. Being a second lieutenant in combat is a difficult situation. He fared as well as most. It is not a well-liked position. He cared for his men and wanted to see as many of them come back alive as possible.” Whatever his shortcomings, says another former GI, “there were a thousand Calleys in the Army.”

More to the point, the young lieutenant was eager to please his superiors—and knew what they wanted. “General [William] Westmoreland had made a statement saying he wanted body count,” says Larry Colburn, who was at My Lai on a reconnaissance mission. “When a four-star general says that, they are going to get him some bodies.”

For weeks before the March 16, 1968, incident at My Lai, Calley’s troops had been losing men to snipers, mines and an enemy they could not see. They were jumpy, frustrated and out for revenge by the time the order came to “waste” My Lai because Vietcong were thought to be hiding there. Yet when their helicopters landed in the village, there was no enemy fire and no signs of an enemy unit. Nevertheless, according to Seymour Hersh’s My Lai 4, one GI suddenly bayoneted a Vietnamese. “Then, everything went crazy,” recalls PFC James Bergthold. “Before you knew it, everyone was shooting animals, people, anything.”

Some of the soldiers still try to justify what happened. “Yes, they were children, women and old men,” says Hodges. “However, women and children can kill you just as easily as a grown-up. These people were not sympathetic to us. They were just as much an enemy as the ones doing the fighting.”

Twenty-five enlisted men and officers were charged with the crimes at My Lai, including Calley’s superior, Ernest Medina, who gave the order to attack the village. In the end, though, only Calley was found guilty—of premeditated murder. Even his critics saw him as a scapegoat, a low-ranking officer who was just following orders. “Calley may have been more zealous than others, but he was doing what was expected,” says Ron Ridenhour, the GI who heard about the massacre from friends in Charlie Company and worked tirelessly to expose it. “This was not the aberration of one wild officer. My Lai was an act of policy. Calley had his guilt, but he was just one small actor in a very large play, and he did not write the script.”

Inevitably, he became a lightning rod for a country bitterly divided over the war. Antiwar protesters compared him to Charles Manson. At the same time, there were rallies for Calley, and politicians such as George Wallace came to his defense. Women sent him nude photos, and some proposed marriage. There were pop songs written about him, as well as books and a Broadway musical. One admirer even gave him a Mercedes.

“My last name was massacre,” Calley once said. “I was in a windstorm. I lived in a cage.” Yet it was a more comfortable cage than one might expect for a convicted murderer. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Calley spent only three days in the stockade at Fort Benning before President Nixon ordered his release to house arrest. Three years later he was a free man, paroled by the Secretary of the Army.

“Rusty doesn’t deny what he did,” says TV anchor Al Fleming. “He’ll say, ‘I did what they charged me with.’ Anyone who killed women and children has got to feel remorse. But I think he’s come to grips with his conscience. He was following orders. They trained him and ordered him to leave the ground scorched, and he took it literally.”

Yet Calley shares such thoughts only with a few close friends. “I passed through Columbus a few years ago,” says former Sgt. Kenneth Hodges. “I stopped in. He was not rude or ugly. But he didn’t care to be bothered.”

“He feels that he took the rap for all of them—that he’s the fall guy,” says one friend. “He sometimes thinks the government may still be watching him, that his phone is tapped. Once he told me, ‘If I were to say what I really thought, I’d end up getting sued.’ He is particularly resentful toward William Westmoreland.”

“I’m sure he thinks about the people he killed,” says old friend Lincoln Stone. “He’s not cold-blooded. He’s a compassionate guy. But he’s also tough. Rusty’s father was only about Rusty’s size—and he played football for Georgia Tech. Rusty took after him. He’s emotionally resilient. He knows who he is and doesn’t have too many illusions about himself. He’s not a guy who feels sorry for himself.”

What Calley prefers to talk about these days is losing his hair and watching his son grow up. He is thinking about moving the jewelry store to a better location. These are the normal concerns of an average man—a good man, according to those who know him—who stands convicted of the ugliest crimes of an ugly war. “Someday he’ll tell his side of the story,” says his friend Dr. Evans. “But he’s not ready yet.”

Though only Lieutenant Calley was found guilty of wrongdoing by a military court, many of the other roughly 80 soldiers of Charlie Company have paid dearly for their presence at My Lai. How dearly is often difficult to say, because some simply won’t talk about the experience. The mother of former Pvt. Paul Meadlo, who complained in 1969 that “I gave them a good boy and they made him a murderer,” warns reporters, “I advise you not to fool with him ” and refuses to divulge his whereabouts.

Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome—whose symptoms include depression, rage and suicidal thoughts—already seems to have claimed the life of one My Lai veteran: Former Specialist 4 Robert T’Souvas was homeless when he died in Pittsburgh last year at the age of 39, killed in an argument over a bottle of vodka. Former Rifleman Varnado Simpson has tried suicide three times and lives in a haze of heavy medication. Others, who are able to speak of My Lai, lead lives marked forever by the events of March 16, 1968.

James Bergthold battles nightmares and paranoia

“I’m told that Calley has the American dream,” says James Bergthold, a machine gunner with Charlie Company. “What makes him different than me? He has a home, I have a home. He has two cars, I have two cars. If he says he doesn’t have no problems, he’s a liar. We all have problems.”

Bergthold, 42, is not sure why, for him, the scars of My Lai are still so raw. He admits that he killed a wounded woman that day—to put her out of her misery. Yet at the time he had no qualms about the operation. “I didn’t think anything of it when everyone started shooting the women and children,” he says. “It was unusual, but you didn’t question what the military tells you to do.”

Slowly, though, feelings of anguish tightened their grip on him. Discharged from the Army soon after My Lai (he was never accused of a crime), he returned home to Niagara Falls, N.Y., and married Nancy Bruns in 1971. But, unhinged by drinking, drugs and frightening explosions of temper, he had trouble holding a job. “He was wild,” says Nancy, 41. “He scared me.”

Bergthold also experienced vivid flashbacks and nightmares. One recurrent vision, he says, had him back in Vietnam with his wife and three children. He would prowl the house late at night with a loaded gun—which, on occasion, he brandished at Nancy. In 1977 she and James separated for a year and a half.

Finally, in 1985, Bergthold sought help at a local Veterans Administration clinic. Antidepressant drugs helped take the edge off his rage; long sessions at a therapy center for combat vets helped him get sober. Even so, doctors have advised him to avoid the stress of a job and have asked Nancy to stay home and watch over him.

Thoughts of suicide still plague Bergthold, as do irrational fears about his children; Francine, 18, and Tracy, 14, must be home by dark. Even James Jr., 21, who no longer lives at home, checks in every day. “You think about what you did, and here you’ve got kids of your own. The wondering puts a lot of mental strain on you,” he says. “Maybe God isn’t finished punishing me yet.”

Hugh Thompson wonders why so few said no

Hugh Thompson doesn’t brood over My Lai; “It just isn’t something I talk about,” he says. It may help that his conscience is clear. For that gruesome day was not without its heroes, and Thompson heads the list. A helicopter pilot then as now, Thompson was on an air-cover mission for Charlie Company at My Lai. What Thompson saw going on below made him “bewildered, shocked and infuriated,” he recalls. There were bodies everywhere, and he watched in disbelief as Capt. Ernest Medina shot a wounded girl.

Touching down between a bunker filled with cowering Vietnamese and an advancing line of soldiers, Thompson ordered his door gunner, Larry Colburn, to fire on the Americans if they began shooting the villagers. “Any way you can get those civilians out of the bunker?” he asked the officer on the ground. ” ‘The only way,’ he told me, is with a hand grenade,’ ” Thompson recalls. Furious, Thompson called in a bigger chopper, which managed to fly out all of the people in the bunker.

Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and spent months assisting the My Lai prosecuters. In 1974 he was discharged from the Army during a “reduction in force.” Twice divorced, he now ferries oil workers to rigs off the Louisiana coast. Only his oldest Army buddies know about his role at My Lai, and even Thompson doesn’t claim to fully understand it. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with the way you were raised,” he says. “I can’t believe that I was raised different than the majority of people on the ground.”

Harry Stanley doesn’t brag about doing the right thing

Harry Stanley marched into My Lai with the same orders as everyone else in Charlie Company: Search and destroy. But when the others started firing, he didn’t. “I was waiting for some resistance,” he says. “There was no reason to shoot.” Then Calley gave him a direct order. A few hundred Vietnamese had been herded into a ditch, and the lieutenant wanted Stanley to set up a machine gun and start killing them. Stanley refused. “I’m ordering you to do it,” screamed Calley, who then grabbed an M 16 and jabbed it in Stanley’s stomach. Stanley pulled his own .45 automatic pistol, cocked it and put it to Calley’s midsection. His buddies stared in amazement. “I guess they thought I’d gone crazy,” says Stanley. The standoff ended when Calley ordered some 20 other GI’s to start firing; it took them nearly 15 minutes to execute everyone in the ravine.

Stanley had earlier considered making the military a career. But “after My Lai,” he says, “I wanted to get as far away from the Army as I could.” Ironically, when he arrived home in December of 1968, he was pelted with eggs by antiwar protestors in Chicago. Stanley was living there when reports of the massacre broke in the press, followed by news that investigators were looking for him. By then thoroughly skeptical, Stanley didn’t feel like answering questions. “You don’t know what’s on the government’s agenda,” he says. “Me trying to tell them that I didn’t kill anybody? What’s my chances of that?”

Eventually authorities did track him down, and he testified before a special Army panel. But when it came time to tell his story at the trials of Calley and platoon Sgt. David Mitchell, Stanley simply didn’t show up. Separated for several years from his wife, Stanley has returned now to his hometown of Gulfport, Miss., where he works as a supervisor at a lumber company. He finds it easy not to think about My Lai. When the city of Berkeley, Calif., recently proclaimed a Harry Stanley Day and presented him with a commendation for his actions, he was politely appreciative but largely unmoved. In fact, he never even told his mother about what happened to him in My Lai. “How do you tell a story like that to somebody in this world?” he asks. “It wasn’t worth trying to explain to her.”

Kenneth Hodges denies that the buck stopped at Calley

In the kitchen of his farmhouse in Dublin, Ga., Kenneth Hodges, 44, spreads out a batch of yellowed newspaper accounts of My Lai. Even now, they touch a nerve. All charges against Hodges, a former staff sergeant in Charlie Company, were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, he was later discharged from the Army—he believes because of My Lai. “I don’t have any bitterness anymore,” he says. “But I also don’t feel that the soldiers of Charlie Company were treated fairly, and I don’t feel the soldiers in Vietnam were treated fairly. We deserved better.”

Hodges, who admits to firing on one “military-age male” at My Lai that day, believes the massacre was a “tragedy,” but not one of his making. “Everybody says, ‘You just walked in and killed women and children,’ but this was a well-planned, well-coordinated operation,” he says.

The key to making sense of My Lai, Hodges insists, is to understand the brutal psychology of combat. “It’s hard to tell someone what it smells like when a mine goes off and the smell of gunpowder and flesh is mixing in the air,” he says. The men in Charlie Company had lost buddies to those mines and had been told they would finally be engaging the enemy that had laid them. The men had also been trained to obey all orders—which they did at My Lai with deadly literal-mindedness. “In the military you just don’t ask why,” says Hodges. “You don’t question superiors.”

Today, Hodges raises chickens and vegetables on his family’s 40-acre farm with his third wife, Margaret, and drives an ambulance for the local VA hospital. A recovering alcoholic, he has been sober since 1985 and still sleeps with the light on. It puzzles him that most of the officers who planned the My Lai operation were not convicted, but he claims not to be obsessed with the horror of that grisly mission. “I do not see My Lai as one of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, as some people have expressed it,” he says. “They didn’t see all the other days.”

—Bill Hewitt, with bureau reports