Memories of My Lai

Merle F. Wilberding shares lessons learned from the famous Calley case

Published in 2007 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2007

A small piece of Vietnam War history hangs on the wall across from Merle F. Wilberding’s desk. It’s a four-color courtroom sketch from late 1972 that once appeared on the CBS Evening News. A young Wilberding sits on the right, tucked among a group of serious-looking men, as he represents the Army in court proceedings against Lt. William L. Calley.
In 1968, U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai, but though 25 military personnel were charged in relation to the incident, only Calley received a conviction—and spent fewer than four years under house arrest. “Lt. Calley had his records flagged the same day I enlisted in the Army,” Wilberding says. “I read about it in Time magazine.”
Wilberding graduated from law school while the draft was still in full effect and served four years in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He was quickly assigned to the Pentagon, where he worked in the court martial appellate process. By the time the Calley case worked its way to the appeal stage, Wilberding was one of the senior people in his office. He was assigned the controversial case and successfully represented the Army in the Army Court of Military Review and U.S. Court of Military Appeals.
In the midst of media attention and growing anti-military sentiment, Wilberding managed to focus on the task in front of him. Working on the case meant sorting through enough trial records and exhibits to fill a four-drawer file cabinet. “There wasn’t any question of evidence,” he says. “The record was staggering. He was personally involved. I’ve always had the opinion that anyone with common sense would know that’s not what you do. There were privates at the scene of the massacre who refused to take part in it.”
There’s a calm, reassuring quality to Wilberding’s voice, and it’s not hard to imagine him handling the pressure of such a high-profile assignment. He does admit, however, to some nervousness. “Going into a courtroom is a little like an athletic competition,” he says. “If you’re not a little nervous, you’re not going to perform well.” Wilberding also learned to live with the fact that anything he did or said might end up on the front page of the newspaper.
There’s been consistent interest in the Calley case over the years, but Wilberding finds that even more people want to talk about it in light of the Iraq conflict. In fact, he recently wrote a guest column for his local newspaper about parallels between My Lai and abuses in Iraq. “The risk to personal safety is very high in all wars,” he wrote. “And certainly the risks escalate in wars like Vietnam and Iraq because your friends during the day may be your enemies at night.” He goes on to make a plea for common sense, a simple quality he says soldiers use when they refuse to mistreat civilians.
Today, Wilberding is a senior partner at Coolidge Wall, a Dayton law firm where he’s worked for the past 33 years. He has a broad business practice that encompasses everything from taxes and real estate to banking. He’s argued cases in front of the Ohio Supreme Court and has long represented The Ohio Players—a funk rock group that recorded a number of gold and platinum records in the ’70s.
He also continues to exercise his intellectual curiosity. Recently Wilberding completed a master’s degree in information and library science, and he enjoys writing—whether it’s a brief, letter or personal book project. He’s penned books on topics as varied as rural Iowa and the law. “Every day I have a bigger appreciation of the ability to write clearly,” he says. It’s easy to see that he hasn’t lost any of the thoughtfulness or youthful exuberance so apparent in the drawing of the young attorney hanging in his office.

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