Friday, August 31, 2018

Robert "Doc" Topmiller

 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 HuĂ©, 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)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful)

What an extraordinary week I had in Washington, D.C. at the Khe Sanh Veterans Association Reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the siege of Khe Sanh.

It never ceases to amaze me how the bond we made with one another remains so strong after all this time. The minute I’m back together with my old radio buddies, Steve Orr, Michael Reath, Raul “Oz” Orozco, and Cliff "Meatball" Braisted, we begin cutting up and heckling one another as we did when we were 19-year-old Marines trying to cope with our own imminent mortality, and, often worse, that of our friends. We toasted Tom Mahoney, Doc Topmiller and others--now gone--who had been so special to us; putting aside the tragedies of their deaths in order to dwell on the joy they once added to our existence. At this phase in our lives, we have few pretensions, which is comfortable; yet, the lyrics of that old Toby Keith song kept playing in my head all week: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”

There were many others I was delighted to see again. My friends Gary Foster and Dan Moore, who have been so helpful in the research for my books, treated me to breakfast; the former, at the  venerable Willard Hotel, and the latter at Pho 75, for some of  the tastiest Vietnamese chow I've ever had.  

I was fortunate enough to finally  meet several of those from Tom Mahoney’s battalion, such as his old squad leader Jim Anderson,  and Tom “Tugboat” Northrop, who was there during the effort to recover his body that bad July afternoon in 1968, and later returned with the DPAA in 2016, along with Mahoney's former platoon leader, Frank Ahearn, to locate the site where he was last seen. Tugboat still possesses the moral courage that won him the Silver Star at Khe Sanh during one of the worst battles his company was ever engaged in. Morbidly ironic, it happened on Memorial Day 1968.

In addition, it was great to spend time with  a group of Marines, and a corpsman, from Delta Company, First Battalion, First Marines, who were in some extremely dangerous situations during the war, including the final major Marine battle at Khe Sanh (more of a "last stand") on Hill 689 the night of July 7, 1968. 

One of them, Jim Velcheck, snapped the attached photo capturing the moment I presented the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller,  with my book The Long Goodbye.  Retired Marine Colonel Tom Czech (center) introduced me to him at the reunion banquet on Saturday evening, providing him with a bit of background on my work, before asking if he would accept a copy of the book. As he shook my hand, the Commandant said, “General Bedard called me and told me you’d be coming.” He then leafed through the pages for a few moments and humorously quipped: “You should be giving this [upcoming] speech, instead of me.”

As you may recall from my prior blog posting, I first met retired Lieutenant General Buck Bedard and Colonel Czech a mere two weeks earlier at my speech about The Gunpowder Prince in the Las Vegas Country Club during a luncheon hosted by attorney Joe W. Brown.  As such, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the swiftness of the trajectory, from that day at the podium in Vegas, to handing the Commandant my book on Saturday night—all resulting from the generous spirit of  General Bedard and Colonel Czech, who saw some value to the Marine Corps in my books, and wanted to do something to advance that. It doesn’t get more personally rewarding!


Also, this week, I learned that the DPAA had come across a Marine Corps (school type) ring in the vicinity of where Tom Mahoney was last seen. Tugboat Northrop, and others who were with Tom,  could not clearly recall if he wore a ring. However, we zoomed-in, and more closely examined the photograph (attached) of Tom, that I used for the cover of The Long Goodbye (taken about three months before his death), and it seems to show something on the middle finger of his left hand. I passed this info along to DPAA. Perhaps the sophisticated equipment in their lab in Honolulu can better define what it is; and, if a ring, whether it matches the one they now have in their possession. It may turn out to be something other than a ring (you may want to zoom-in on his left hand and see what you think).

All this is so typical of the convolutions and surprises that have dogged our search for his remains for years. It’s frustrating, but it also lends a strange feel that we are, somehow, inching our way to a conclusion.  Ray Kern, Mahoney's case officer at DPAA, said yesterday that, while they are currently searching for others in another quadrant of the country (18-4VN), and despite the Mahoney case being "a difficult one"--- they "would soon be returning to it."

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Matter of Mutual Respect

An amusing quip that has been kicking around for years has it that: If a person is from Texas, attended Harvard, or was in the Marine Corps, you will learn about it in the first five minutes of a conversation with them.

As with most jokes, there might be an element of truth in this, since these associations do seem to have a profound effect on how a person defines themselves throughout the rest of their lives. Being from California and having received my degree from an undistinguished state university there (which, coincidentally, we self-mockingly referred to as: “Harvard West”), I am unqualified to lend an informed opinion on the first two. However, an experience I had this week with several fellow, former U.S. Marines, reminded me of why we are different than Texans and Harvarders.   

Last Wednesday, I spoke about my latest book, The Gunpowder Prince, to a luncheon audience of around one hundred at the Las Vegas Country Club, hosted by renowned Las Vegas attorney, and former Marine, Joe W. Brown. The group consisted of business, professional and civic leaders, including a former governor of Nevada. Due to the announced subject of my address, there was also a good number of those with military backgrounds present, including a dozen, or so, former Marines.  Among the latter, was retired Lieutenant General E.R. “Buck” Bedard, who had served in Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander.  Years later, as a colonel, he participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and commanded the 7th Marine Regiment when it deployed to Somalia with the difficult assignment of protecting humanitarian efforts there. As a lieutenant general, Bedard would serve as a Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps before retiring.

Also present was retired Marine Colonel Thomas Czech.  Our conversation was particularly moving for me. As an enlisted man, he had served in Alpha Company, First Battalion, Ninth Marines, during the siege of Khe Sanh. His platoon had been overrun by a North Vietnamese Army battalion while defending an area west of the combat base on the night of February 8, 1968. Of the sixty-four Marines and corpsmen, roughly half were killed and all, but a few, of the others were wounded. Czech was among those wounded, left for dead by his attackers as they swarmed past him over the hilltop. He would survive, do additional time in Vietnam, and go on to make a career of the Marine Corps. I was pleased to learn that he will be attending the Khe Sanh Veterans Association reunion in Washington, DC. later this month, so we will have a chance to resume our discussion.  

I was honored to have Lieutenant General Bedard, who prefers to be called “Buck,” introduce me as the keynote speaker, and equally pleased to have Colonel Czech, who prefers “Tom,” follow my talk with his own, very personal, recollections of Khe Sanh. Buck then joined me during the, at times quite emotional, Q&A period that followed. Like Captain Mirza Munir “Harry” Baig, in The Gunpowder Prince, Buck had extensive training in counterintelligence (at one point in his career serving as an instructor at the U.S. Army Intelligence School), and so his input was both pertinent and insightful. It was one of those perfect, spontaneous moments when, as host Joe Brown later described: “You could hear a pin drop in the room.”  Witnessing this, I was once again overcome with awe at the egalitarian tradition in which we are bonded by the Corps for the rest of our lives. I never cease to marvel—especially in this world of endless hype and spin—at the genuineness of it all!  

I had been part of  this dynamic before, when I came to know another retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, Martin Brandtner. Marty, as he insisted on being called, lived in Reno and served as Development Director for the Roman Catholic Diocese. Like Buck Bedard, Marty had served as a rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam and had also risen to the highest rank in the Marine Corps—save for Commandant.

Both gentlemen were engaging, unassuming, keenly intelligent and generous with their praise.  At one point, Marty saw to it, along with Major General Mike Myatt, that my first book, A Patch of Ground, Khe Sanh Remembered, was placed in the library of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco—a real thrill for a new writer. To these men, I wasn’t a former corporal, I was a former Marine—and that’s all that mattered.

Until his death last year, Marty Brandtner was universally liked and admired by those in the community who knew him—and there were many! Yet, my sense was that most of them had no idea what he had accomplished in his life. It seemed only a few knew that, during the Vietnam War, he had achieved one of the most extraordinary episodes of bravery and leadership in Marine Corps history, earning two Navy Crosses (the Marine Corps’ highest recognition of valor in combat, besides the Medal of Honor)—within an eight-day period!

Marty evidently forgot to mention that in those first five minutes of his conversations with them.

On my flight back to Reno Wednesday night from Las Vegas, I reflected on what a privilege it has been, for an old corporal like me, to have received such sincere approval from extraordinary Marine officers like Buck, Marty and Tom.  And how, when we were finally able to stand down from the rank structure—so essential to the accomplishment of every mission—we were all simply Marines, bound by a special camaraderie of those who intimately appreciate what they had been willing to sacrifice for their country—and each other.

Deeply Honored

Each year the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation presents awards "r ecognizing   exemplary work that furthers the unde...