This week, marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of my close friend, and fellow Khe Sanh veteran, Robert “Doc” Topmiller. The constant incoming artillery fire during the Khe Sanh siege created unique problems for our corpsmen. They had been trained primarily to treat in-and-out bullet wounds, but most of the injuries there were from jagged shrapnel and burns, which would almost always become grossly infected. Concussion injuries on the brain from the force of exploding shells were frequent, as were psychological casualties from the stress of combat. Exotic diseases, including rat-borne rabies, were constant. Filthy living conditions and inadequate supplies of clean water contributed to dehydration, which increased susceptibility to these and other health problems. On occasion, 19-year-old Doc would be given the gruesome task of collecting, in a single bag, body parts of several Marines literally blown to bits by incoming artillery. These memories would come back and haunt him in later years, leaving him in the unrelenting grip of severe PTSD.
Doc’s later humanitarian work in helping the Vietnamese people, and his fellow veterans, cope with their problems from the war, left countless of us with fond memories of his life. One of my favorites happened in 2007, after Doc persuaded me, and our mutual friend and Khe Sanh vet, Steve Orr, to return to Vietnam and try to locate the remains of my high school friend, Thomas Patrick Mahoney III. Doc, who was then a practicing Buddhist, asked that we allow a telepath to join us on our journey to find Tom.
Belief in the afterlife and the care of deceased souls are deeply rooted in the Vietnamese culture and, for a grieving family, retrieving the mortal remains of a missing relative is of the greatest importance. This is not only to ensure the soul’s safe transition to the "otherworld," but until their physical remains were found and "honored," often by reburial in an ancestral cemetery, unhappy, wandering souls were a problem for the living—responsible, many believed, for almost every misfortune that befell a family. Thus, for centuries, mediums have been used to communicate the wishes of the dead to the living.
On December 20, 2007, we hiked up the hill where Tom was last seen, accompanied by the telepath, Nguyen Buu Thuan, and several other Vietnamese, including an interpreter and, surprisingly to us, a former North Vietnamese Army soldier, who had fought against the Americans, and who had asked if he could come along with us and honor my fallen friend. After Mr. Thuan located the spot he believed Tom’s remains were, and communicated with Tom’s unhappy wandering soul, they held a prayer ceremony, that included burning incense sticks and setting out gifts to entice Tom's soul, including food, fragrant flowers and a bottle Vietnamese vodka. I then placed a commemorative plaque alongside those offerings. After the little service was concluded, and our translator leaned down to remove the bottle, our former NVA foe shouted sternly in Vietnamese "Leave it for the soldier!"
The soldier's simple and spontaneous outburst of respect was profoundly moving to we three Khe Sanh veterans. The image of us standing alongside a uniformed former enemy from a nearly forgotten war, amid waving elephant grass and swirling smoke, in the midst of an Asian jungle, drawn there by a 20-year-old kid's apparent mistake decades before, will always seem to me like some preposterous dream.
Just as our Montagnard guide began covering the plaque and bottle with dirt, Doc’s cap, with a Marine Corps globe and anchor on the peak, blew off his head in a gust of wind and landed upright in the middle of the little hole. As he reflexively leaned down to pick it up, several of the Vietnamese cried out for him to leave it there. The telepath then explained to us that it was common for wandering souls to be "playful." Mahoney, he continued, was happy we had come for him and knocked the hat off Doc's head as a sort of a prank (an act definitely in keeping with Tom's impish nature). As such, the cap stayed and was buried along with the plaque and vodka.
As we descended the hill and arrived on flat land, Doc suddenly slipped off a small dike and landed on his back in a foot of rice paddy muck, but not before dragging ten feet of bramble fence line along with him in a futile effort to right himself. We all chuckled the rest of the way to the hamlet where our vehicles were parked. We then returned to Hué, while Doc tended to some thorn punctures in the hand that had grasped the brambles, and waited for us to begin teasing him about the fall. He did not have to wait long.
Despite all the astonishing things I witnessed that day having been the result of Doc's expertise, connections and tireless efforts, I could not pass up the opportunity later that evening, over beers in the courtyard of the Morin Hotel, to drolly mention his pratfall into the paddy. Doc seemed to have been waiting for this and offered an immediate excuse: As with the loss of his cap, Tom Mahoney's mischievous soul was responsible for bumping him into that muddy rice paddy.
While I don’t believe in ghosts, I must say that after what I saw that day, including the coincidence of Doc's two strange mishaps, I was left feeling a little uneasy at that moment, and I think Doc picked up on that vibe, nodding his head with a slightly self-contented smirk on his face that seemed to convey: “See, I told you so.”
So, our thoughts are with you today Doc. You did so much wandering throughout your life trying to relieve the pain of war, I hope your anguished soul is now at rest.
(Me, Steve and Doc in Hanoi, December 2007)