Street Smarts: Eddie Araiza, cowboy, businessman and proud veteran | Local News
Johnny Thompson considers himself lucky.
The 68-year-old suffers from memory loss and his short-term memory is destroyed.
The double vision torments him. Sometimes he has trouble speaking. “I’m really at a loss for words,” he says.
On a good day, he can walk with a slight limp. On a bad one, he cannot step without the safety and security of a walker.
He served three tours of duty in Vietnam and each earned him a Purple Heart. He still carries a steel bullet – an armor-piercing cartridge – in such a precarious place near the left vertebral artery and his spine that a doctor warned him never to be more than 40 minutes from a hospital. .
This guy ? Fortunate?
“I still feel like the most blessed person in the world,” Thompson says.
Because, of course, he came home.
The veteran’s blessings include a strong faith in God, three children – all of whom live within 15 minutes of his Marana home – nine grandchildren and his 47-year-old wife, Homosexual. He can pick up his cell phone and not remember who he wanted to call, but he can describe the day he first laid eyes on her, wearing a polka dot dress, at a gathering of church in Texas when 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,” says Andrew Bower, an Army veteran who met Thompson through their church. “His heart shines through. He always has a smile on his face. He’s positive, he’s optimistic. Those ailments don’t hold him back. He’s got his bad days guaranteed – he’s not letting that stop him.
He did. Once.
At the darkest time of his life, Thompson admits he was suicidal, so depressed he could only sit on the couch. His body was wracked with convulsions, and his memory and speech continued to fail him.
A misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s at age 41 caused him to live out his life in one- to two-year increments. Now doctors know that traumatic brain injury, coupled with side effects from medication, caused his problems.
Despite his injuries, Thompson spent nearly three decades in the military, assigned to several different units, including special forces, and rose to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. Even in retirement, he was dedicated to the army – and more precisely to those who served in it.
People come to Thompson, asking him to find out about their fathers or their uncles or their grandfathers who are deceased. They want him to fill in the blanks because veterans back then just didn’t talk about what happened in the war.
That lack of communication, coupled with a 1973 fire at the U.S. National Personnel Records Center in a Missouri suburb that erased millions of official military personnel records, makes it even harder for relatives with a history. of research.
The Thompsons scour the internet, finding out what they can. When they discover that a veteran has earned a medal, Johnny will find a replacement for the family. He types stories while Gay has even recreated embroidered battleship crests.
The two also host traveling military history exhibits that have been shown throughout the state at conventions and churches.
Some of Thompson’s Vietnam War memorabilia are now on display in Tempe (see box top right). Thompson got the idea when he brought memorabilia to the local veterans hospital about four years ago. He watched the other patients’ eyes light up as he passed around an unarmed dart warhead.
He managed to acquire so much that three of the six bedrooms in Thompson’s house are given over to military memorabilia. Even the one devoted to grandchildren’s sleepovers is overrun with documents and uniforms.
Down the hall from the upstairs bedrooms, framed prints from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall decorate a living room.
Thompson chokes when he points to the names of two soldiers in his unit.
“The only thing you can’t stand in war is the people you can’t save,” he said softly. “These are the ones you lose – they are the strongest memories you have.”
Thompson’s own medals and ribbons fill a shadow box hanging on the wall, but he won’t talk about them.
“A lot of people don’t get anything when they should have,” he says.
The son of an Army Air Corps experimental test pilot who helped design helicopters, Thompson was just 16 when he enlisted. A doctor realized he was a minor and reported him. Undaunted, Thompson enlisted again the following year.
After graduating from flight school, and even though he had a wife and young children, Thompson volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“I could save people,” he says. “I knew I could help people.
The master helicopter pilot ended up serving three tours of 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 Vietnam tour was the worst.
“We went with 83, 84 guys,” he says. “Only 22 have returned home.”
Thompson himself barely made it.
He remembers the mission he carried out on May 19, 1971, Ho Chi Minh’s birthday and two days after his. It was a flight he had flown solo several times before, but this time 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 recalled. He was hanging out at the helicopter door, looking for signs of the enemy when more than 150 bullets peppered the helicopter as mines exploded from below.
“I was just drawing blood from my neck,” Thompson says. “When I got hit, I lost control of the Huey. It was straight up in the air.
Two bullets passed through Thompson’s throat, hitting the vocal cords and his larynx and almost completely splitting a vertebra. Discs in his back were crushed by the explosions under the helicopter.
Thompson went through six or seven hospitals on his way home. “Everywhere I went, everyone was like, ‘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 history of fellow veterans.
Even with Gay’s help, it’s painstaking work. “It takes us a month what other people could do in two days.”
Thompson could 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 rediscover the work of the day before.
It’s frustrating, yes, admits Thompson. But that doesn’t discourage him at all.
“I’m going to keep going until I don’t know I’m doing it anymore.”