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Thank you, Sgt. Thompson

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My Army battalion was on a required yearly field training exercise. The full moon gave off enough light that I could clearly identify soldiers moving in the cold windy Oklahoma night. Personally, I wasn’t very thrilled to be there at all. It was hard to leave the comfort of a warm home and go out and play soldier.
I saw an older NCO (non-commissioned officer) running around as though he was much younger than he was. I had to stop for a moment and admire his enthusiasm. It was hard to believe he was showing so much energy. I even envied him. I was sure he would soon be getting out of the Army, going home safe to his loved ones.  
He reminded me of my father. I felt, at the time, he should be somewhere in a rocking chair, with his grandchildren on his lap. He had probably made it through Korea and maybe even World War II. No doubt he had paid far more than his dues.
As for me, there was an uncertainty as to whether or not I might be so fortunate. I had gotten some dreaded orders from the Department of the Army that I was to “arrive in country wearing short sleeves.” That meant Vietnam. It was late 1967 and I thought the war might have been over by then. But it wasn’t.
About a week later, for some reason, I guess just out of curiosity, I asked some others in personnel about this NCO I had seen out in the field. Sometimes, our unit got people on temporary assignment, who were either going to another assignment or being processed out of the service. Surely, that was the case in this situation.
To my surprise, I found out I was totally wrong. This man had retired. Well, maybe I was partially correct. But he had gone to the trouble of contacting his U.S. representative to petition the Army to let him back on active duty. That was baffling to me at the time.
I took the opportunity to talk to this man. And I point-blank asked, “Sgt. Thompson, why would you decide to come back into the Army? You had it made,” I stated, matter-of-factly.
Believe me, I was serious about what I was saying. At that time, there would have been no way I would have volunteered to come back into the military.
I had set myself up quite well for the answer he was about to give.  
“Lieutenant, I’m an old man, but if I can come back in here and take the place of just one young boy, then I will be happy to do that,” he said.
The answer stung me and I could feel myself getting smaller by the moment. I was quite a bit taller than him, but at that time, it was hard for me to look up high enough to see him.
I guess I could say that was one of the “defining moments” in my service life. Very shortly thereafter, I began to feel a change in my attitude. If this man could make such a statement and believe it with all of his heart and soul, then I needed to do some reassessing of my own. And I did.
The day came when all of the officers in the battalion were assigned to write efficiency reports on the NCOs. Believe it or not, I was given Sgt. Thompson’s name, along with some others, of course. It was obvious that I was going to praise him as much I possibly could. I would not say anything that was not true. I could write a glowing report without any exaggeration. And I did.
Several weeks later, and not too long before I was about to ship out, I was standing in the S-2’s (intelligence staff officer) office talking to the officer in charge when someone walked up slowly behind me. I turned to glance and it was Sgt. Thompson.
He looked directly at me and said in a solemn and penetrating voice, “Lieutenant, I want to thank you for what you said on my ER (efficiency report). I don’t think I have ever had someone to say such good things about me, and I just want to thank you.”
The fatherly look from the weathered face and the sincerity beaming from his eyes caught me off-guard. I immediately felt a lump in my throat and, by the time he was done, all I could respond with was “You’re very welcome.” I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t and still control the moment. I’m sorry until this day that I didn’t, but with all my heart, I believe he knew. He could see it in my face, I’m sure.
I never got another chance to talk to him. In the haste to finish up there and go on the usual 30-day leave before I went for my tour, I just never had the opportunity.
I often wonder what became of him. My hope is that he got his wish and went to Vietnam and returned safely to live out his life with friends and relatives. And just maybe, he sat in a rocking chair somewhere with a grandchild on a knee, maybe one on each knee.
And as for the thank you, no, Sgt. Thompson, let me thank you. That would be the least I could do. And I don’t think I could ever say that graciously enough.  
Sgt. Thompson, thank you. Thank you for your service and for your selfless act of courage. I wish I had found out more about you.