Attorney Herbert Thornbury is standing at The Moving Wall, running a finger across a sea of letters. He’s looking for the names of men he knew – men whose feet stepped off of American soil and didn’t return alive. He finds one – John Robert Hagan – and pauses for a moment of contemplation, the unblocked July sun beating down on his silvery head.
The names stretch for over 125 feet in either direction in an empty lot near Ross’s Landing, a temporary memorial to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War.
A veteran of the fight, Thornbury remembers when his name came close to joining the others. “The enemy used to mortar our rear areas. One morning, a mortar landed about 50 feet away from the building in which I was sleeping,” he says.
As a first lieutenant in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Thornbury’s job was to run the medical platoon, which consisted of a drafted physician fresh out of medical school and 35 medics. In an essay he penned for the 50th reunion of his class at The McCallie School, Thornbury wrote, “I matured more in those 375 days than any other period [of my life].”
Thornbury grew up in the St. Elmo community, far from the place that would make him a man. The son of grocers, he attended McCallie and then studied English at The University of Chattanooga (UC). While at UC, he joined the ROTC program because “it paid students $50 a month, and it was an easy A.” With the Vietnam War heating up, Thornbury stayed in ROTC (which he pronounces “rot-see”) as a precautionary measure against being drafted as an infantryman.
Thornbury expected the war to wind down before he graduated, but it didn’t. Instead, upon completing his degree in English, he was commissioned to the Second Platoon. “All of a sudden, I was in the Army,” he says. “They gave us ROTC guys two years – one year in the U.S. and one year in Vietnam.”
After his year of training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, Thornbury went to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he received his orders to report to Vietnam on July 1, 1969.
Although Thornbury wasn’t an infantryman, he was still a target, so he carried a gun. “We had an arsenal we’d acquired over the years. It was locked up with the drugs,” he said. “The medics weren’t supposed to fight, but everyone carried at least a .45 to protect himself and his patient.”
Thornbury’s weapon of choice was a 16 gauge shotgun. He never had to fire it.
Like many of the men who found themselves in Vietnam, Thornbury didn’t understand why he was there. But he served, as he’d been told to do. And he survived. “I was fortunate ... to return decorated and unscathed, a better person for having served with fellow Americans, most of whom were draftees, and many of whom gave their lives for our country,” he wrote in his reunion essay.
A few weeks after arriving home from Vietnam, Thornbury started law school at The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He did not, however, talk about having been in the war. The Kent State killings had just happened, and the My Lai massacre was beginning to gain notoriety. Both events increased opposition to the war. “I expected to return as a conquering hero, and I found the opposite to be true,” he wrote in his reunion essay. “Within a week or two, I realized I shouldn’t tell anybody where I’d been, as I’d be condemned rather than commended.”
Thornbury took his academics more seriously than before the war, and three years later, he graduated, passed the bar, and was sworn in with members of a graduating class that had dwindled from 150 to 70. He then returned to Chattanooga to practice.
Thornbury has spent the 43 years since then representing plaintiffs in civil matters, including car accidents, workers compensation claims, and Social Security Disability cases. He’s also practiced with a number of well-regarded attorneys, including Judge Don Poole and Phil Lawrence, whom he calls “the most versatile lawyer I’ve ever known.” In 1992, Thornbury became the municipal judge of Walden, a position he held until 2015.
“It’s been a good career for my family and me,” Thornbury says. “I’ve valued every client.”
In 1974, Thornbury met Joan Hubbuch, who’d also grown up in Chattanooga and attended Notre Dame. They married the following year, bought a house on Signal Mountain, and raised two children – John, who works for the Seattle Art Museum, and Marie, a certified claimant’s representative with the Social Security Administration. Nearly a decade ago, Thornbury and his wife moved into a North Shore condo overlooking the Tennessee River, and haven’t budged since.
Thornberry intends to practice for several more years, although he is working on his exit strategy. He recently joined the firm of Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison, where he’s teaching new attorneys the ropes. In his McCallie essay, Thornbury confessed to still working more hours than he should. “I keep asking Phil how much longer we’re going to keep this up, and he says until we can’t anymore,” he wrote. “Too often, that conversation takes place at 6 p.m. on a Saturday.”
Thornbury did stop working long enough to visit The Moving Wall while it was in Chattanooga. He’d seen the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and said seeing the more than 58,000 names etched into its stones was a stirring experience. He’s equally moved as he looks at the replica, and expresses dismay over the lives lost.
“The war was wrong,” he says. “These names shouldn’t be here. I’m a Democrat, but Johnson escalated the war, and then Nixon couldn’t figure out how to leave. It was an awful situation.”
Although decorated for his service, Thornbury says he doesn’t feel like a hero. Instead, he looks back on his time of service as a life-changing experience. “I did things I never did again, and I saw things I never saw again. Then I came home and went to work,” he says.
Thornbury will talk about the war now. Public sentiment toward those who served in Vietnam softened over time, and 25 years after he returned to the U.S., he was surprised when someone told him, “Welcome home.” Thornbury doesn’t dwell on his time overseas, though. Even his children know only about as much as his McCallie essay contains on the topic.
Thornbury is thankful, though, for the life he lived that others didn’t. He begins searching for another name, knowing each one his finger crosses likely represents ambitions unfilled, a marriage lost or unconsummated, and children never born. He stops and taps a name, and then pauses to remember.