The year was 1970, and an unpopular conflict was raging in Vietnam.
Topper Avenel, then a baby-faced 22-year-old Navy petty officer 3rd class, found himself trekking behind a handful of Marines carrying out a reconnaissance mission in rocky, mountainous terrain.
Avenel was the rookie of the bunch, having left his young wife behind in the states in order to serve his first tour as the group’s medic.
Then, out of the blue, an explosion erupted. One of the men had tripped a land mine.
Avenel dove behind a boulder just as jagged fragments of metal buried into the flesh of every other member of the team.
There was no time for him to panic. He was their “Doc.”
The group needed him to stay strong. “That’s what they trained me to do,” he said.
Avenel took a deep breath, steadied his hands and moved from one Marine to the next, doing what he could to stanch their bleeding.
One man, Dennis Mills of Centralia, Mo., Avenel’s closest friend on the team, was worse off than the others.
“His pants were saturated with blood. I started examining him and he had nails and glass all in his body,” Avenel said. The young medic took great care to start an intravenous drip and gave the wounded man morphine. “I patched him up the best I could.”
In the process, he helped save Mills’ life. Avenel received the Bronze Star for his efforts.
Now a 66-year-old Summerville resident, Avenel recalled the incident with ease as he sat with his wife Sue, flipping through old scrapbooks recently at their home on Clifton Street.
Avenel remained in the Navy after the war, and went on to retire as a senior chief petty officer after 22 years.
The Vietnam era of his life, however, lingered on his mind as though it happened yesterday, he said. Even more so since Avenel and Mills saw each other in late August for the first time in more than four decades.
The old friends shed tears and swapped stories as they toured the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., with their families in tow, and paid their respects at Arlington National Cemetery.
The pair had lost touch after Mills was sent back to the states following his injury. But Mills said he often thought of Avenel over the years.
“My kids knew who Doc was ever since they could talk,” Mills said. “I relived it many a time. I was hit in both legs, there was a piece in my back and it came pretty close to my heart. I was messed up pretty bad, but I stayed conscious while Doc fixed me up.”
Mills was stationed in Tennessee while he recovered from his injuries.
Eventually, Avenel made it back home too.
In the initial months, Avenel struggled with night terrors as the stress of war continued to weigh heavily on his mind. The memories grew distant with time as Avenel busied himself with day-to-day life.
It all came crashing to the forefront again in the early ’90s when Avenel received an unexpected phone call.
“I picked up the phone and he said, ‘Doc? This is Mills, Dennis Mills from ’Nam,’” Avenel said. “We just started talking and by the end we were both crying on the phone.”
Mills had tracked his old friend down using a wartime letter Avenel had written that contained contact information.
In the letter, Avenel had asked Mills, who was headed back to the states on leave, to spare a moment in his journey to reach out to Avenel’s wife and wish her a happy birthday.
“I tried for years to call him, but I never could get a hold of him. Finally one day I got a hold of his mom and she gave me his number in South Carolina,” Mills said.
Avenel and Mills talked periodically around the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day holidays, but didn’t see each other in person until this year.
Avenel’s wife Sue said she was touched during the reunion to learn that Mills’ loved ones cared about her husband as though he were a member of their own family.
“He said had it not been for ‘Doc,’ he never would have gotten married, or had a family. He never would have made it back alive.
“His children said their dad had talked about ‘Doc’ ever since they could remember. It was like he was always in their conversation. The grandchildren knew him, even though they had never met him. It was heartwarming to me,” she said.
Mills said he and Avenel plan to visit one another again in the future.
“It would be great to see some of the other guys too. I just wish we’d done it sooner. I regret waiting 43 years,” Mills said.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.
Topper Avenel gave this letter to Dennis Mills back in 1969 when Mills was returning from Vietnam and asked Mills to contact his wife, Sue and let her know he was doing fine and loved her. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 9/26/13×
Vietnam veteran Topper Avenel shows the letter he gave to Dennis Mills when Mills was sent home after being wounded in Vietnam back in 1969. The letter contained a phone number to Avenel's wife Sue and ask Mills to let her know he was alright and that he loved her. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com) 9/26/13×
Sue Avenel listens as her husband Topper talks about the day he saved Dennis Mills’ life while on patrol in Vietnam in 1970. Above, the pair pose for a photograph in Vietnam in 1969.×
Vietnam veterans Topper Avenel (left) and Dennis Mills stand together at the Marine National Museum. Avenel, a medic, saved Mills’ life in 1970 during a patrol.×
Topper Avenel gave this letter to Dennis Mills in 1969 asking Mills to contact his wife, Sue, upon Mills’ return from Vietnam.×