Vietnam vets reunite in McAlester
MCALESTER, Okla. (AP) – Mike Land thought his friend Larry Van Ness died 48 years ago.
Land, a machine gunner during the Vietnam War, took leave in the spring of 1969 and said his goodbyes to his fellow soldiers serving alongside him, the McAlester News-Capital (http://bit.ly/2sNecPq ) reported. Van Ness was one of his closest friends during his first tour of duty. He was Land’s section leader, often camped in a foxhole right next to Land and at the elder Van Ness was a role model to the 18-year-old Land.
“He was an old man already,” Land said. “He was 22.”
The pair hit it off immediately.
“We got along real well,” Land said. “He and I seemed to work right off the bat. He was a hell of a good man and he was a good leader.”
However, when Land returned to Vietnam for a second tour, he was unable to track down those he had served with, including Van Ness.
“I thought everybody was dead,” Van Ness said. “I went back for a second tour of ‘Nam and I thought he was dead, that’s what I’d gathered I guess.”
Van Ness was drafted in the spring of 1968. He won numerous recognitions for his time in the military including a Navy Achievement Medal for outstanding leadership in the field of battle and an RVN Cross of Gallantry for heroic conduct, according to his family.
He served as Land’s commander and fondly referred to the younger soldier as “String Bean” due to his slender frame.
The two marines spent roughly a year serving together in the jungles of Vietnam, until Land rotated out. As abrupt as the friendship began, it came to an end. Land lost track of his friend without an efficient way to contact Van Ness after returning to Vietnam.
Forty-eight years passed without any resolution to the mystery. Land finished his military service, returned to the U.S. and settled in Texas.
But this spring, a Kansas high-schooler named Harrison Gooley made contact with Land after tracking him down on the Internet. Gooley had information regarding Land’s long-lost friend.
Van Ness was alive. And, there was an opportunity for the two to meet, after all these years, right here in McAlester.
Gooley began his search for Land after talking to Van Ness about his service in the military. Browsing Van Ness‘ war medals, flipping through old picture books and asking questions about Van Ness‘ experiences. Gooley used skills developed as a student journalist for his school’s online publication to learn about the man behind the accolades and photos.
But Van Ness is no ordinary veteran to Gooley. Van Ness is Gooley’s grandfather.
Gooley was told the tale of Van Ness‘ lost friend Mike Land after uncovering a photo of Van Ness and Land in Vietnam. It quickly became apparent Van Ness missed his old war buddy.
“Tears welled in his eyes as he explained the man standing next to him was Mike Land, his best friend amidst the bloodshed,” Gooley wrote in an online article for his high school’s news publication.
“The way my grandpa spoke of Mike broke my heart,” Gooley wrote. “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 Gooley decided he’d find Mike. And he wrote a story documenting the search to boot.
In an article titled “A Bond Unbroken” published in The Harbinger Online – a student publication at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie View, Kansas – Gooley detailed the work he put into locating Land.
Finding Mike was no simple task. Gooley knew Land’s hometown was Baird, Texas, but not much else. Scouring the internet for clues, Gooley began contacting city officials in Baird, local churches, the county’s sherriff’s department and the Baird Veteran’s Affairs office.
No luck at first, but after multiple emails Gooley finally got a lead. He received one email response from someone who knew someone who might know Land. Eventually he received a Baird High School yearbook photo from 1965 of a “Michael Land.”
“I researched Baird High School,” Gooley wrote in The Harbinger Online. “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,” Gooley wrote. “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.”
Then another email trickled in with an additional clue, “Mike Land left Baird school his freshman year and his sweetheart was a Shirley Simmons Manning.”
“Another name that could lead me to Mike,” Gooley wrote.
Again returning to the internet Gooley searched for individuals named Shirley Simmons in Texas. Of 40 results, one 67-year-old stood out as the ages aligned. Searching Simmons’ related contacts he found some lived in Merkel, Texas – matching an earlier clue.
Gooley’s hunt led him back to Facebook where he located an Elizabeth Land who had ties to Merkel.
“Elizabeth’s Facebook profile gave me nothing, but her friends list did,” Gooley wrote. “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,” Gooley wrote.
“Harrison is that you?” Land asked Gooley over the phone. “I’ve been looking for your grandpa for nearly 50 years! I thought he was dead.”
The man Gooley had traced back to Texas was in fact Mike Land – his grandfather’s best friend in Vietnam. After locating the Facebook picture, only a few direct messages set up the phone call between the two.
“I can’t believe you found me,” Land told Gooley. “This is like a dream. I never thought I’d see your grandpa again.”
Gooley had to tell his grandfather who he’d found first.
Van Ness, who now lives in Springfield, Missouri, was in town that afternoon and his grandson decided to surprise him. Gooley handed his grandfather Land’s phone number and told him whose it was.
“He began to cry as he hugged and thanked me, saying he couldn’t believe I had done something like this,” Gooley wrote. “Neither could I.”
A meeting was arranged in McAlester for Van Ness and Land, a central location for the pair.
“I’m nervous,” Van Ness told the News-Capital prior to reconnecting with Land. “I think he’s going to be just beside himself. Overall I’m looking forward to it.”
Van Ness had the privilege of staying connected to some of the others he and Land served with in Vietnam. Land did not.
“He might not know me,” Land said. “I’ve gotten a little ragged since then.
“The last picture I’ve seen of him he looked the same,” Land added.
But all nervousness and concerns about recognizing one another were erased upon arrival in McAlester. In the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express, the pair laughed, eyes welled up, back-slapping hugs occurred and a friendship was rekindled.
Mike Land and Larry Van Ness were back together for the first time in 48 years.
Land and Van Ness spent the day sharing stories from their time together in Vietnam and catching up on the past 48 years.
Both men complimented the other on their service and what the other’s friendship meant.
“I was section leader so I was over Mike,” the elder Van Ness said. “His foxhole was right beside mine and you get to where you depend on that guy. If you lay down to go to sleep, he has to stay up and watch.
“He could take over,” Van Ness continued. “He could step up and do the job. He was the one who carried the ammo for the M16 machine guns so he had to stay within earshot for when we ran out of ammo.”
Learning Van Ness was still alive, and subsequently arranging to meet with him helped bring hope to Land, who struggles with PTSD.
“I’m 100 percent disabled with PTSD,” Land said. “When (Gooley and Van Ness) found me my world turned around … I’m not in some dark depression anymore.
“It’s done wonders for me to know my brothers are there,” Land added.
Van Ness talked about the “shell shock” he experienced as a result of his service. While on leave from Vietnam, Van Ness panicked at the sound of two motorcycles starting.
“I took off running,” Van Ness said. “My ex-wife found me under a car.”
A plane flying above his hotel caused another incident later that trip, he said. Van Ness jumped out of bed and hurt his shoulder trying to scramble underneath the bed.
The pair spent time talking about pastimes they enjoy currently. Van Ness still hunts, but Land does not.
“I don’t hunt anymore,” Land said. “Going over a second time broke me of hunting. I shot a squirrel and broke down and cried for 30 minutes.
“I’ve done what shooting I need to do,” Land added. “I’m over it now.”
Land walks with a cane. He found he enjoyed making himself one using a walking stick so much he has since made several for other veterans in his area, he said.
Both men are married and Van Ness‘ wife was able to witness the reunion. Gooley also joined his grandfather to meet the man he’d worked so hard to find.
“It’s a heck of a deal,” Land said. “I owe (Gooley) a big favor, he helped me a lot.”
The pair decided to recreate the photo that started it all – and “String Bean” Mike Land even decided to take his shirt off again for the picture. Nearly five decades after the original, the pair seemed to have hardly skipped a beat.
“When you sit back to back with a man you can’t describe the bond,” Land said. “I know any of the men there would give their life to save mine, and I would have done the same for them.
“We were very blessed,” he continued. “We went a lot of places that weren’t very good, but we walked out of there.”
Now, the two old friends finally get to walk and talk and laugh together again.