Remembering a brother who served, the mother who fought for what he deserved
Updated 11:44 am, Monday, May 27, 2013
It is difficult to write an obituary; for a brother harder yet.
It means chronicling a man's passage through life. Highlighting his achievements. Describing be the fabric of who he was.
William Thornton was the middle son of Fairfielders Lawrence and Frances Thornton. After graduating Roger Ludlowe High School in 1966, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1967. He served a 13-month deployment in the central highlands of Vietnam with the First Air Cavalry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade.
What happened to him there -- like many young men and women who serve the nation in combat -- would change the course of his life that ended at age 67 last January.
During a fierce engagement with North Vietnamese regular troops in the Chu Lai area, Spec. 4th-Class Thornton was severely wounded -- the only surviving member of his squad. He was airlifted out of Vietnam and flown to Walter Reed Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., for two years of treatment and rehabilitation. He was 20 years old. For his service, William Thornton was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge and Vietnam Service ribbon.
His mother, Frances, had recently retired as an executive secretary after working many years for local law firms. Her concern about her son's injuries, however, caused her to take on a new cause full-time.
On Frances Thornton's first visit to Walter Reed Medical Center to see her son in the summer of 1969, she was appalled by the conditions she witnessed in the sweltering amputee ward where her son and other young men were housed. Many still had mud and blood on their faces and necks. When hospital personnel were asked about the lack of basic medical hygiene, Frances Thornton was told that, as part of therapy, the wounded patients were encouraged to do their own daily washing.
Pointing out that her son William's arm and hands were wrapped in casts and splints, Frances Thornton asked hospital staff how patients like him were supposed to do this. Two days later, blood, mud and other care issues remained, prompting the first of many letters to hospital and Army staffs by Frances over the deficient care. While her son was rated "Marksman" by the Army with the Connecticut-manufactured M16 rifle, Frances proved just as proficient with her Bridgeport-made Underwood typewriter. At 50 words per minute, she targeted numerous government agencies with letters expressing her outrage at the lack of adequate care for the nation's wounded warriors.
Responses, while apologetic, focused on how busy the hospital staffs were as excuses for the lack of care. Subsequent letters pointed out that her son had already been at the hospital for three weeks and a simple procedure of wiping off the patient's face seemed to be a simple enough task. A bit more help was not an unreasonable request, she wrote.
At this juncture, Spec. 4th-Class Thornton started to become known as "KWM" (the Kid with the Mother) by hospital staff. If a physical therapist ordered a rubber ball to be squeezed by him as physical therapy and said ball was not delivered for a week, congressional offices were following up on Frances Thornton's inquiry about the hospital's rubber ball shortage.
It was becoming dangerous to run afoul of the KWM. Treatment issues owing to bureaucratic blunders were gently underscored by Frances that a No. 2 pencil did not injure her son. Patient Thornton's care improved significantly. The bureaucratic stumbling block for effective treatment required a bugle to be blown, sometimes a bit louder than the staff was used to.
After two years of treatment William Thornton was discharged and went on to live a typically successful life. He was proud of his family, his country and life lessons. Questioning authority and popular wisdom is a right. It is an obligation to expect a higher standard in all things, particularly after such selfless service. He volunteered at the Veterans Administration as a patient advocate for many years. His mother and the rest of his family were proud of his accomplishments and efforts to fight the good fight.
William Thornton's death in January was caused by complications from cancer linked to his exposure to Agent Orange while he served in Vietnam. In cleaning up his personal effects, his family discovered copies of all the correspondence from his mother to more than 15 federal agencies in her campaign to secure the treatment that her son -- and so many others -- deserved. She was successful in cutting through medical and governmental bureaucratic jargon, and in response, in her file of responses were polite accolades from the secretary of defense and cabinet-level officials crediting her efforts on her son's behalf.
Frances Thornton had died seven years earlier and, at the time, was survived by her three sons and several grandchildren. Her life was proof of the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, a mighty legacy that she wielded in defense of her children.
David Thornton is a longtime resident of Fairfield.