“Ever since you called me, I ain’t been back to that corner,” Mike Land told me as the smoke from his Camel cigarette rolled over his cracked lips.
If you didn’t read my story last year, I’ll give you a quick recap.
My grandfather, Larry Vanness, was a Marine in the Vietnam War and one of his closest friends was Land. Making sure the other wouldn’t get shot while they went the bathroom, they always had each other’s backs. They lost touch once they left the war and hadn’t heard from each other in 48 years – until I reconnected them last February.
Land was 17 when he joined the Corps. Take a second and think about the 17-year-olds you know and let me know if you think they could fight in the ugliest war in American history – while they had a wife and kid at home already. Land was sent to Vietnam in June of 1968 and left in July of 1969. He spent 13 months in hell as an 18-year-old.
After Land returned from the war, his big welcome home was finding his wife had left him and taken their son with her. She burned everything he had sent her from Vietnam. From pictures of the Cam Lo Valley to comrades’ addresses, it was all gone.
Three years later, he was sent back to Vietnam for six more months, spending most of his time offshore on a “float.” This time, the return home was even worse.
“I was a drunken dopehead,” Land said. “I was ready to fight anybody at any time, hoping there were at least two or three of ‘em.”
He became a drifter. One week he would be living in California with a retired woman of the night (interpret as you please), and the next he would be in Texas to visit his son.
Land’s wandering persona changed when he moved to Texas. That’s when he met Elizabeth, his wife of 42 years. Land began taking construction jobs here and there and taking Elizabeth all over the country, from Hawaii to California.
They eventually settled down on a piece of land in Alvarado, Texas. And that’s when the flashbacks began.
Land was working as a construction superintendent for a new fire station in Dallas at the time. One morning, he went to open up the site, checked the area for safety hazards and went to the office to make himself some coffee. The next thing he remembers, he was at home.
“My wife found me in the front yard, crying like a baby,” Land said. “Making coffee was the last thing I remembered.”
The breakdowns and memory loss continued even after he quit his job. He was given a job as a carpenter by a friend he knew, and he was eventually moved up in the company to work as assistant superintendent. That’s when one of his worst breakdowns happened.
“A jet flew over the work site,” Land said. “It sounded like the jets flying in to drop napalm over Mother’s Ridge back in ‘Nam.”
The local police wanted to lock him up in the psychiatric ward, but Elizabeth refused. Instead, he was sent to the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco, Texas for nine weeks for rehabilitation.
Land had been admitted to the hospital, locked up twice in psychiatric wards in Waco and spent time in a civilian psychological hospital trying to cope with the psychological impact the blood and bullets of Vietnam had on his mind.
After getting help from doctors and psychiatrists, Land’s breakdowns tapered, but his flashbacks persisted. He began to sleep for two or three hours a night, waking every hour because he feared he was back on the cold, damp jungle floor of Vietnam.
He spent his days sitting in the dark corner of his barn alone, whittling sticks and listening to Johnny Cash. He may have gone outside to check his garden or get a snack, but the majority of his day was spent in that corner.
The hardest part wasn’t the breakdowns or flashbacks. Land worried about his comrades; he hadn’t heard from a single person he met while he was on his first tour. He didn’t know where they lived, if they had kids, what their lives had been like. He didn’t even know if they had made it home from the war.
He had no one. No one to share stories with. No one to reminisce with. He had no pictures, addresses, phone numbers. He lost everything and everyone from the war.
“I needed someone like you to come find me,” Land told me. “I was in a dark place.”
Since the day I called him, Land said he has done a “complete 180.” He doesn’t sit in the corner anymore. He talks to Bro or Bird or Mitsuda, buddies from Vietnam, every day. He goes to group meetings with other vets to talk. He’s not alone now.
That’s because on June 24, 2017, my grandpa and Land reunited for the first time in 48 years.
“Damn man, you haven’t changed a lick,” Land said to my grandpa as he walked through the automatic doors of the Holiday Inn Express in Mcalester, Oklahoma. “Maybe a little rounder, but damn you look exactly the same.”
The hours were filled with 48 years of stories. But Land could only remember the basics. His post traumatic stress disorder had taken his memories. My grandpa had a war dog named Sarge for four months during his tour. Land had no idea. The look in his eyes when my grandpa tried to explain how he had Sarge was one of both confusion and sadness. He couldn’t remember names, faces, firefights, nothing.
But that didn’t take away from the happiness shared by the two Marines.
As I sat with the two brothers-of-war, Land placed his hand on my knee and his eyes filled with tears.
“Your grandpa saved me back then and you’ve come to save me now. Thank you.”