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!




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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."






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