During the Vietnam war, Colburn dropped out of high school in Washington state and joined the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 161st Assault Helicopter Company, where he was a door gunner; his crew chief was Specialist Four Glenn Andreotta and his pilot was Warrant Officer One Hugh Thompson Jr. On March 16, 1968, Colburn’s chopper was flying a mission over Mai Lai, and they saw many dead civilians — and watched as a U.S. Army captain shot and killed an unarmed woman. Thompson landed the chopper between Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division, and the civilians, interrupting the killings. They evacuated some of the civilians, and reported what happened to their superiors. Thompson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Andreotta and Colburn the Bronze Star, for their actions, but the massacre was covered up; Thompson’s signature was forged on a report. In all, at least 347 civilians (the U.S. government figure), and as many as 504 (the Vietnamese government figure), including children and the elderly, were killed in what became known as the Mai Lai Massacre.
Andreotta was killed in combat three weeks after Mai Lai. In 1969, Colburn testified as to what really happened. Still, it wasn’t until 30 years later that Colburn and Thompson (and, posthumously, Andreotta) were awarded the Soldier’s Medal — the Army’s highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy. “It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did,” said then-Major General Michael Ackerman at the ceremony. The three “set the standard for all soldiers to follow.” Senator Max Cleland entered a tribute to Thompson, Colburn and Andreotta into the record of the U.S. Senate, saying the three men were “true examples of American patriotism at its finest.” Colburn and Thompson returned to Mai Lai in 1998, and dedicated a new elementary school there. In 2003, Colburn addressed midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, noting “Combat is chaotic. Combat is primal. And something surfaces in you, especially when you see people close to you fall. And it’s very difficult to control. Your job as young officers is to monitor those men who are pulling the trigger to make sure that that primal instinct, you have to keep it in check somehow.” Colburn “stood up, shoulder to shoulder with Hugh and Glenn, to oppose and stand down against those who were committing crimes against humanity,” says Trent Angers, who wrote The Forgotten Hero of Mai Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story. “Without his assistance, Hugh might not have done what he did.” Colburn stayed connected with Thompson for the rest of their lives: he went to Thompson’s side to be with him when he died, on January 6, 2006. Colburn, the last survivor of the chopper crew, died on December 13, from cancer. He was 67.