Tommy Fagan found his purpose in life, his sense of belonging through his service in the military.
The Richmond native returned from the battlefield, even went on to earn two degrees from Eastern Kentucky University, but like so many of his fellow soldiers, found that the scars of war never really heal. At age 34, he passed away last year from a massive seizure.
Now, however, thanks to a recent addition to the Veterans Memorial at EKU, his life of service will never be forgotten. In Veterans Day ceremonies on Saturday, Nov. 11, the University unveiled a Fallen Soldier Cross in memory of all those who lost their lives because of their service, but not while in active service.
The sculpture was fashioned by Allen Ferg, a platoon mate of fellow Vietnam veteran and former EKU history professor Dr. Robert Topmiller, another of the day’s honorees. It features a bronze casting of the traditional upside-down rifle, boots and helmet, surrounded by a stainless steel sphere that “symbolizes that PTSD is not unique to America, and represents the global nature of the problems facing all warriors after they leave service,” said Dr. Brett Morris, former professor of military science with the University’s ROTC program, who has been involved with the Veterans Memorial project since its inception.
Family members of Fagan, Topmiller and others were invited to attach replica “dogtags” to the sphere to create a wind chime effect.
Dr. Aaron Thompson, an EKU faculty member now serving as vice president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, was a friend and mentor to Fagan, and among the speakers at the Veterans Day ceremony.
After two years in the Army, including combat in the Middle East, Fagan came home at age 21, but “he never really left Iraq and Afghanistan. He came home suffering from so much. He had flashbacks and nightmares, difficulty sleeping and trouble concentrating.”
Just as he had been assisted by staff at the EKU Military and Veterans Affairs Office and others, Fagan went on to help his fellow veterans in any way he could and was a certified active volunteer at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. In fact, he was planning to help some fellow veterans move on the day he passed away.
Fagan’s name was added to a bench adjacent to the new sculpture.
The speakers also included George Herring, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and a prominent scholar of the Vietnam War, and keynote speaker Michael Archer, whose book “The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited” won Foreword magazine’s 2016 INDIES Book of the Year award for war and military nonfiction.
“Like no other event in our history, Vietnam caused us to confront a set of beliefs as a people,” Herring said, recalling the words of novelist Robert Stone, who once likened the unpopular war to a piece of shrapnel “embedded in our definition of who we are.”
“Bob Topmiller (a medic at Khe Sanh) served nobly in Vietnam and was dedicated to understanding the war he had fought in,” Herring said. “His tragically short life reminds us that wars don’t end on the day the shooting stops.”
Archer, who called himself an “old friend” of Topmiller, said, “We do know that veterans of all wars deal with life and death situations every day. For those we honor today, the war is over.”
For Topmiller, the war “ended” with his passing in 2008. In a letter to the editor of The Eastern Progress, Peter Szok recalled his former teaching colleague’s “open and generous spirit” and his focus on “contributing to his community and broadening his own understanding of humanity. I was particularly impressed with Bob’s volunteer work, his willingness to share his knowledge with innumerable groups and his deep concern for his fellow veterans and for the people of Vietnam. It is difficult to see Bob’s death as anything but a tragedy. Over the last days, I’ve felt a great sense of sorrow, but also an enormous feeling of privilege for having spent time with this extraordinary person.”
Approximately $15,000 was raised to fund the Fallen Soldier Cross sculpture. Donations to the Veterans Memorial Fund at Eastern can still be made through the University’s Development Office, online at development.eku.edu/givingand designating the gift to the Veterans Memorial Fund, or by mail to University Development, Coates CPO 19, Eastern Kentucky University, 521 Lancaster Ave., Richmond, Kentucky, 40475.
Gifts of $100 or more are remembered by brick pavers that name the donors or someone they wish to recognize.
The Veterans Day ceremony was preceded by a special roll-call tribute to Vietnam veterans with the reading of names of the 1,100 Kentuckians killed in action in the Vietnam War. A day earlier, the campus community participated in the National Roll Call, a reading of approximately 7,000 names as part of a grassroots effort to honor service members lost in recent military conflicts.