In the decade since he confessed to a horrified nation watching him on television, Paul Meadlo has done his best to forget that he and other American GIs massacred more than 100 men, women and children in the Vietnamese hamlet called My Lai.
There are no mementos of his military service in the neat but sparsely furnished living room here. He does not talk about My Lai to anyone, not his family, his friends, or his co-workers at the Hercules Chemical Co. factory. There have been no more interviews with the press, although there have been scores of requests over the years.
"People will come out and say things without really knowing and it hurts," he explained last week, after reluctantly agreeing to talk to a reporter who showed up at his door.
It is exactly 10 years since the first news stories broke about the slaughter at My Lai, galvanizing the country's growing uneasiness with the war in Vietnam.
Meadlo's appearance on network television shortly afterward -- he was flown to New York City by CBS for an interview with reporter Mike Wallace -- showed the country its first view of an actual participant in the incident. He was a nervous young man laboring in a flat Indiana accent to explain the killing.
"Why did I do it?" Meadlo said. "Because I felt like I was ordered to do it, and it seemed like that, at the time I felt like I was doing the right thing, because like I said I lost buddies." Meadlo, who was out of the Army by that time, was never charged with any crime.
In a sense he was the epitome of many of the contradictions and confusions about the war -- a round-faced earnest 22-year-old who handed out candy to the children he passed in the far-away villages and then, with tears streaming fromn his eyes, shot down old men, women and children huddled helplessly in a ditch on orders from his superiors.
"It just seemed like a natural thing to do at the time," he told Wallace, after recounting how he emptied four clips of ammunition from his M16 into a cluster of frightened Vietnamese in the hamlet. Later, his anguished mother, Myrtle, added to the dark picture, telling a reporter, "I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer."
Meadlo, now 32, winces at the words now and says his mother must have been misquoted. But the memory of My Lai has not disappeared. He still has trouble going to sleep sometimes, he said and over the years he has reconsidered what took place there.
"I have a permanent reminder," he said. His right foot was blown off the day after the My Lai shootings. At the time he told some of the infantrymen with him that it seemed like retribution for the killings.
"There is no doubt in my mind that if I knew then what I know now I never would have carried out that order," he said. "I definitely would have told Calley [Lt. William L. Calley Jr., his immediate superior] to go to hell. I didn't want to shoot anybody."
"I feel ashamed of what I did," Meadlo added.
The bluntness of the admission makes him stop talking for a moment, then nod his head vigorously as if finally coming to an agreement about it all with himself.
"I care about what people think. It hurts what they think about me," he continued. "I'd like it if they thought the better about me instead of the worst."
In a peculiar bit of irony, this conservative blue-collar city on the banks of the Wabash River has never really condemned Paul Meadlo for his part in the events that occured at My Lai.
Instead, he has somehow been permanently miscast here in the role of the man who blew the whistle on the massacre.
It is not a particularly enviable reputation to carry around in a Midwestern county seat like this one, where a four-story war memorial a mothballed Air Force jet, still wearing its camouflage coloring, flank the courthouse lawn. County records show that 31 men from here lost their lives in Vietnam.
"There are certainly those here who fought in other wars and who wouldn't have condemned Paul for what he did and Vietnam," said John Kesler, Meadlo's attorney during the My Lai investigation and the subsequent military trials.
"But," Kesler said, "a lot of people feel that Paul should never have gone on television and talked about it."
The result has been a sort of double-edged unpopularity for Meadlo. He recalled with some bitterness that as recently as three years ago he was denied membership in a local men's club because someone brought up the CBS television interview.
Meadlo certainly never sought the celebrity. He says now that he was "suckered" by Wallace. The CBS reporter fed him questions so fast he didn't have time to think out his answers, he complained.
"One of the things that I'd do different if I could do it again is not go on television," he said. "You can just bet I'd never do that again."
"How do you shoot babies?" Meadlo was asked during the CBS interview.
"I don't know. It's just one of them things," he replied.
Later, during Calley's trial at Fort Benning, Ga., Meadlo elaborated on the question a bit. He was frightened, he said, that the babies in the village of My Lai might have been booby-trapped.
"That was on my mind," he said. "They might have some sort of chain, a little piece of string, that they could give one little pull and blow us up," he testified.
Calley, who spent 40 months in federal custody for his role in the My Lai affair, now lives in Columbus, Ga., and sells jewelry at his father-in-law's store. He refuses to discuss My Lai or its after-effects other than to comment over the phone, "Obviously, nearly four years in prison doesn't do you any good."
"You have to understand," says Meadlo, who has not spoken to Calley since the 1971 trial. "I was scared of what could happen to me at My Lai and I was scared of what would happen if I didn't obey Calley. That's what they shout at you from the minute you go into the Army."
He does not believe in that blind obedience to the voice of authority any longer. "A person ought to be able to judge a lawful order and an unlawful order for himself," he says without hesitation. Now, he even ventures, he would risk the 10 years he put in at the Hercules plant if a supervisor gave him an order he could not accept.
Measured by some standards it is probably just an attitude change in keeping with the times. But Meadlo said the transformation from the obedient soldier at My Lai has been a long and lonely one. He has not even told his two children about the killings. "I wished I had someone I could have talked to," he said.
"The whole thing has left a very deep scar on Paul," said Kesler, who successfully steered Meadlo away from prosecution for his role at My Lai.
"I don't think anyone ever said anything pleasant to him during the whole time," Kesler said."It hurt him and in a way it kind of warped his mind.