June 16, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
College student-athletes are often seen as heroes to fans of all ages. Meredith "Dissy" Thompson is a hero, not because she played basketball and softball for the University of South Carolina, but because of her dedication and sacrifice as a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, for which she gave her life in a plane crash in Peru in 1994.
"We all pursue careers based on passions and a love for something," said Thompson's sister, Elizabeth Miller. "My sister was no exception. Certainly we all worried, but at the end of the day, she was doing what she loved. You're pretty lucky if you find yourself in a place you really care about and have a passion for. I think that's something we all aspire to find, and she found it."
Thompson earned her degree in criminal justice from South Carolina in 1983. She was the third of five children and was raised, for the most part, in Fairfax, Virginia, after moving around a lot as a child due to her father's career in the Navy. The middle of five children, "Dissy" was a childhood nickname given to her when her younger brother was a toddler, and the name stuck. She joined the DEA in 1985 and established new female physical training records during basic training before eventually settling in the Miami office.
"Meredith was so full of life and lived life to the fullest," said Michael Braun, a former DEA Chief of Operations and a Basic Agent Training classmate of Thompson. "She was a phenomenal athlete, wicked smart, and was fearless. She was an absolute rock star. She had a sense of humor that was second to none. She loved practical jokes. She was respected and admired by everyone who was ever blessed to know her."
During her time at the DEA, Thompson participated in hundreds of arrests, investigations and raids in some of the most dangerous areas of Miami. She was described by her peers as a fearless and tenacious drug agent who was immensely popular with fellow agents. She also served in various undercover and enforcement assignments overseas.
The DEA has a survivor's benefit association and the motto is 'never forgotten.' DEA will never forget its fallen heroes, and it's good for me to know that it's not just the DEA that is remembering her. Her alma mater remembers her very well and honors her very well.
Thompson later served as a mentor for aspiring agents such as George Price at Basic Agent Training, where DEA and FBI agents were trained together at the time. Price, who finished at the top of his class and is now a partner at a law firm in Boston, credits much of his professional success to Thompson.
"Meredith was all about teaching people to be better," Price said. "She would do everything we did. We'd go for 6- or 7-mile runs in July and August in full combat gear, and she would do it with us. She would do anything that she asked anyone else to do. There were not a lot of women in DEA back then. She was always there to help and push you to the next level. There were many weekends when the entire class might leave for the weekend to get away, but I would stay every weekend, and she would stay to work out and to study with me to push me to make it to the end. She was completely selfless about what she did, always."
Thompson received numerous commendations and was known as a tireless, innovative and motivated worker by her superiors. She was active in youth work in her church and her community. She loved to promote the University of South Carolina any way possible and thought of herself as an ambassador for her alma mater.
"Meredith was a raging Gamecock," Miller said. "The university was so important to her, both academically and athletically."
In 1993, Thompson volunteered for the DEA's most dangerous and demanding assignments, Operation Snowcap, in which Braun was also involved. To qualify, she completed a rigorous U.S. Army Ranger jungle training course at Ft. Benning in Georgia and took a special weapons course along with six months of language school for the assignment in Latin America. She excelled in her training and was recognized for her outstanding physical abilities and mental determination.
"She had called and said she was very interested in going through the selection process for Operation Snowcap, and asked what I thought," Braun said. "I believe I influenced her into moving forward, and that's a little bit tough because we ultimately lost Meredith and other agents as well. I strongly suggested that she join the program. I thought it would be good for her and her career. She shined in that very tough training over eight weeks just like she had done in Basic Agent Training."
Thompson completed two tours of duty in Bolivia before being chosen as one of only 14 agents for special operations in the Peruvian Jungle. On August 27, 1994, Thompson and four other DEA special agents were killed when their plane crashed in the jungles of Peru while conducting counter narcotics operations during a search for clandestine cocaine processing plants.
"I'm a parent, and I can't imagine losing a child," Miller said. "We're a very close family, so it was hard."
Her name may not be among the career leaders in the basketball or softball media guides, but Thompson is still a fixture at South Carolina. Her parents, Adelaide and Jack, established a scholarship at South Carolina through the DEA Survivor's Benefit Fund for the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice in her memory shortly after her death. Every year since then, the scholarship for criminal justice majors has rewarded students who exemplify the same qualities for which Thompson was well known: personal integrity, leadership, professional dedication, and academic scholarship.
"The University was just a place that she called home and loved so much," Miller said. "Mom and Dad wanted to honor that and help other students succeed by providing some level of financial support. The fact that our family can help support other young men and women who want to pursue a career in criminal justice and have the same attributes as my sister is rewarding. We're just really pleased to help in a small way."
"We'd like to make more people familiar with Meredith's sacrifice and her devotion to the university," said Richard Crock, former DEA Supervisory Special Agent and current chairman of the DEA Survivor Benefit Fund. "We have an unsung hero there at the University of South Carolina, who was a loyal alumna and paid the ultimate sacrifice to try to make the world a better place. Meredith's legacy is something that should resonate with the university and its alumni."
Braun added that it's important that her sacrifice is remembered not only by the DEA, but by the university as well.
"Meredith was very proud of her alma mater and the two are inextricably related," Braun said. "I really believe the university laid the foundation for her, along with her family of course. The DEA has a survivor's benefit association and the motto is 'never forgotten.' DEA will never forget its fallen heroes, and it's good for me to know that it's not just the DEA that is remembering her. Her alma mater remembers her very well and honors her very well. That's comforting because Meredith was a very close friend."
Thompson's legacy is also remembered with an annual golf tournament in the Washington, D.C., area with donations going to the DEA Survivor's Benefit Fund. Such tournaments for the fund are held throughout the country.
"It's a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization designed specifically to provide financial help to families who have lost someone who is a DEA Agent or Task Force Officer," said Miller, who is involved with the annual tournament. "It helps their children as well. I think we've helped to put well over 50 dependents through college. My sister's tournament here in D.C. has raised over $1 million for the fund.
"Participation in these fundraising golf tournaments and through participation in the DEA's annual memorial ceremony, we've met so many people who worked with Meredith," Miller added. "Having people talk about the work she did and sharing funny stories really helps. It reinforced the idea that she did what she loved. She was a fighter, and everyone on that plane is a patriot and a hero."
While Thompson was very humble, Miller noted that her sister would probably like to be remembered as someone whose priorities were "God, country, and family."
"Those were the three things she really cared about," Miller said. "She led a bible study at her church in Pembroke Pines, Florida. She also helped coach a youth soccer team. She was really concerned with children. The ideals of faith, giving back to the community and your family were really important to her. As short as her life was, she lived a good life based on those three ideals."
Thompson is remembered both by her peers and her university. A plaque with her name and photograph are part of a permanent memorial wall at the DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, along with all of the other DEA Agents and Task Force Officers killed in the line of duty. At South Carolina, there is a special framed flag sent by the government of Peru hanging in Currell College near the Horseshoe on campus, along with a memorial plaque, and the scholarship is still going strong.
"It's important for everyone that these agents and their memories live on," Price said. "She was such a shining star and was taken so young in her life. I would not be where I am today if it wasn't for her."
Meredith Thompson is gone, but not forgotten.
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