Mike Land and Larry Van Ness lay in their foxhole as mortars land just feet away, the zips of bullets cutting through the screams of wounded troops. They both scramble to grab their M-60 machine guns, being careful not to stick their heads above the ground. As the rockets come in, Mike provides suppressing fire while Larry loads more rounds into his gun.
In a place like Vietnam, a soldier needs someone to watch their back at every moment, someone to follow them to the bathroom to make sure they don’t step on a mine, someone to hide in a tree with while the Vietcong were shooting. Both Larry and I owe a great deal to Mike. Without his heart and grit on the field of battle, I may not be here today. That’s because Larry is my grandpa.
My grandfather was drafted for the Vietnam War in the spring of 1968. Just a few months after his basic training graduation, he was amidst the hellfire in the Cam Lộ Valley. He served 14 months in the bush, earning a Navy Achievement Medal for outstanding leadership in the field of battle, an RVN Cross of Gallantry for heroic conduct and five other military decorations.
But the one thing he cherishes most from the war isn’t a hunk of metal or a piece of paper – instead, it’s the unbreakable brotherhood he developed within the jungles of Vietnam.
Larry was the section leader for the machine gunners in the Hotel Company, better known as the Horrible Hogs. Mike was an M-60 gunner under my grandfather’s command. At 22 years old, my grandfather was referred to as Old Man while the 17-year-old Mike was String Bean.
After spending an inseparable year in the bush together, Mike was done with his 13-month tour – but my grandpa still had four months left.
From the moment Mike stepped off Vietnamese soil in 1969 until January of 2017, my grandpa had not seen nor heard from his brother-in-arms. He didn’t know where Mike was, what he was doing or if he was even alive. It was eating away at him.
11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22 — I was sitting in the dimly lit living room of my grandparent’s house, looking at the shadow box with my grandpa’s Marine Corps medals when I wanted to know more. I wanted to see how it really was back then. So I decided I was going to go through all of my grandpa’s Vietnam pictures. After flipping through a few of the albums, I came across a picture of my grandpa and another man smoldering towards the camera. My grandpa had come into the kitchen to relive some old stories. One picture got to him more than the rest. Tears welled in his eyes as he explained the man standing next to him was Mike Land, his best friend amidst the bloodshed.
The way my grandpa spoke of Mike broke my heart. I hated to see him hurting. This callused, rugged man taught me how to hunt, how to tie a fishing knot, but most of all, how to love your family more than anyone else. So I made a decision: I was going to find Mike — no matter what. Sure, my grandma had put an ad in a newspaper, but it had led to nothing.
The only information I had was that he grew up in Baird, Texas, a 1,500-person town just 20 miles east of Abilene.
When I got home from Springfield on Monday night, I immediately Googled “Mike Land in Texas” and “Mike Land Baird.” Nothing. The next best bet was to find the city of Baird’s contact list. I found the city secretary, Lori Higgins’, email and explained how I was trying to find Mike for my grandpa.
I woke up Tuesday morning praying to God that she would respond. I opened the email app on my phone: Downloading 4 of 4 items. No luck, she hadn’t answered. I spent the entire morning checking my phone and waiting for a time I could begin calling the other numbers I had found for Baird.
I spent all of my fourth hour making phone calls to three different churches, Baird Veteran’s Affairs, and the Callahan County sheriff’s office. All I had was one response with an “I’ll get back to you.”
Downloading 1 of 1 items. That loading bar at the bottom of my screen was exactly what I was hoping. Higgins said she would talk with some contacts, including her father who served in Vietnam and a historian in Baird. Getting closer.
Two hours later. Downloading 1 of 1 items. “The man you need to speak to is Mike Konczak. He did know Mr. Land. He said he wasn’t sure where he is but that he could help locate.”
Holy s—. A lead. Finally I’m getting somewhere. The second email from Konczak was a 1965 Baird High School yearbook picture of “Michael Land.”
While I waited for Konczak to answer, I researched Baird High School. I sent a paragraph to the 912 members of the Baird High School Alumni Facebook group asking if anyone knew Mike.
Vicky Burns knew Mike, but hadn’t seen him since high school. Troy Smith told me Mike’s father cooked for his mother’s café in Baird, but he hadn’t heard from him since they moved to Merkel, Texas. I was getting closer, but I wasn’t there yet.
Downloading 1 of 1 items. Another email from Higgins. “Mike Land left Baird school his freshman year and his sweetheart was a Shirley Simmons Manning.” Another name that could lead me to Mike.
At this point I was three days in on this search. Using a website called BeenVerified I searched Mike’s name, nicknames, previous addresses, phone numbers and associated people. Trust me, I know it’s creepy, but at this point I was willing to do anything to find Mike. After looking through 40 results for “Shirley Simmons in TX” on the website, one name popped out: “Shirley J Simmons, age 67.” She had a past address in Abilene and her age matched with Mike’s. My heart began to pound and I couldn’t type faster.
I clicked on associated people and eventually made my way to Elizabeth M. Land. Is this Mike’s sister? My hands were shaking with excitement.
Nearly 50 years of nothing and now I was close to finding him in four days.
I looked through her past addresses and that’s when I was positive these people were related to Mike. Elizabeth had her first address in Merkel, the same 2,600-person town that Smith had said Mike’s family moved to. There was no way a 61-year-old Elizabeth Land had lived in Merkel and wasn’t related to Mike.
Elizabeth’s Facebook profile gave me nothing, but her friends list did. Her friend, Rhonda Kirsch Land, had posted a picture with her family and it was captioned “Happy birthday Grandpa, aka Devil Dog. Michael Dale Land…” No way. This had to be him.
I Facebook messaged Rhonda and her family and went to bed eager for a response. The next morning, Thursday, Jan. 26, there was a message from Rhonda’s son, “My grandpa served in Vietnam in that time. Let me send this photo to my parents and I will get back to you.”
Okay, now I was screaming inside. Did I actually just find this man who my grandpa hasn’t seen in 48 years? Did I find the man my grandpa dodged bullets with? The man who protected my grandpa just as much as my grandpa protected him?
Downloading 1 of 1 items. Michael T. had emailed me, saying he received the photos I had sent and was going to talk to his dad. All I had to do was hold on a little longer.
I was sitting in the journalism room, working on my story when an email notification popped up: Hello Harrison. Good news, he remembers him.
I’m sure most people around me thought I had gone crazy as I jumped up, yelled and ran out into the hall.
“Harrison is that you?” Mike’s raspy voice cut through the line as happy tears filled my eyes. “I’ve been looking for your grandpa for nearly 50 years! I thought he was dead.”
“I can’t believe you found me,” he said. “This is like a dream. I never thought I’d see your grandpa again.”
That afternoon my grandpa was in town, so I surprised him at Stroud’s for lunch. He had no idea I had been looking for Mike.
I handed him the yellow attendance pass I had used to write Mike’s number on and asked if he knew what that was. Of course he didn’t, so I told him.
He couldn’t believe those 10 numbers lying in front of him belonged to his long lost brother-in-arms. He began to cry as he hugged and thanked me, saying he couldn’t believe I had done something like this. Neither could I. I wanted to give my grandpa the greatest gift I could think of because he had given me countless others. And I did.
“You don’t deserve a handshake or a hug,” Mike told me over the phone. “You’ve earned yourself one big, slobbery kiss, whether you like it or not.”