I doubt if many remember PFC Nils G. Thompson, a member of Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) of Fort Lewis, Washington who was killed in action (KIA) in the Battle of Mosul, Iraq on August 4, 2005 – but for many of us he was an American Hero.
What makes a man a hero? Many would no doubt find heroism in the fact that Thompson joined the Army at age 18 just out of high school and against the wishes of his family. He asked for and received training in the U.S. Infantry knowing full well that as an infantryman he stood at the tip of the military spear and in harm’s way. He completed his training in the winter of 2004 and was sent to Mosul, Iraq where he served in the Stryker Brigade Combat Team until his death by a single shot from an enemy sniper that killed him instantly just one day after his 19th birthday.
A moving account of the immediate aftermath of his death was written by Michael Yon, a free lance correspondent who was with the Stryker Team that fateful night when Thompson’s body was taken to the military hospital:
We headed back to base, and over to the Combat Support Hospital. Going to the CSH is much different when we lose a soldier outright like Nils Thompson. When soldiers die on the battlefield, they are still brought to the CSH, but their buddies don’t wait around in the waiting room. Usually the commander comes in and pays his respects, then the men come in, pay respects and leave.I walked in behind LTC Kurilla.
The room was silent, chilly, and bright. There was only Nils, the Commander, and me. Nils' hands and face were pale, and there was a stained gauze bandage wrapped around his head, and a green wool blanket covering the rest of him. The Commander put his hand on Nils’ shoulder and closed his eyes. I could see he was praying. I closed my eyes and said a prayer. And then we left without a word.Chaplain Wilson was there in the hallway with some Deuce Four officers. He’s a great Chaplain, sometimes going out on the battlefield. The men respect Chaplain Wilson, and he somehow made things feel a little better.
The other men had not arrived yet, so I went out to sit alone in the waiting room. SGT Peckham came and sat on the floor beside me but I didn’t have much to say. I hope he didn’t think I was being rude, but I was thinking about Thompson and all the fighting he’d seen in the five months since he first arrived here. I was thinking how he just turned 19 yesterday. He’s gone.
Thompson’s platoon walked in and some of them nodded to me as they walked by, heading back to the room where their friend lay. They spent a few minutes, but I didn’t go because that’s a time when soldiers should be with soldiers.A few minutes later, in a heavy silence, we all walked out, loaded the Strykers, and went back to work, battling for Mosul.
The question still remains: What makes a man a hero? It is clear that from almost the moment of Thompson’s death he was honored by the men who knew him best – but for what reason? His youth? His good looks? His friendly nature? His devotion to duty? If this was the criteria for heroism then many other fallen soldiers of the Strykers had the same qualifications; however, they were not marked as heroes. No, there was something else important in the nature of Thompson that moved the hearts of his comrades, commanders, family and the general public which resulted in his hero’s burial at Arlington: Nils Thompson had won the most important battle that any of us face – the battle against ourselves.
Shakespeare illustrates this best in his classic story of young Prince Hamlet who plots revenge against his Uncle Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet’s father. All his attempts at revenge fail and after many adventures Hamlet at last comes to the realization that justice will come in God’s own time saying at the turning point of play, “There’s a divinty that shapes our ends, rough- hew them as we will.”
Thus it was with Nils Thompson. Perhaps like Hamlet what drove him into the U.S. Army was the factor that drove many young Americans into the ranks after September 11, 2001: The desire for revenge against an enemy who had murdered in cold blood so many fine Americans engaged in commerce that produces the world’s highest living standards; however, after serving in the combat zone of Mosul many remarked of the spiritual change that came over Thompson and the intense interest in religion that led him as a devout Catholic to Protestant services and to individual Bible study. Thompson surely came to know, indeed, that a divinity shaped his end.
This was the heroic in Thompson: He had won the battle against the worst in his human nature and came to know, respect and love God. This was what everyone saw in him and why they honored him as a fallen hero and granted him burial at Arlington National Cemetery. I think the conclusion to the Shakespeare play sums up well Thompson’s short heroic life on earth:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
A dead march. Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies; after which a peal of ordnance is shot off.