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THEN & NOW: The Phone Rings. ‘Mike, Is That You?’ 

Brothers-in-arms reconnect more than 50 years after they fought together in Vietnam

spinner image mike lowry and john lunsford visit the vietnam veterans memorial. one of the men places his hand on the wall, while the other gestures to a name above them.
Wish of a Lifetime from AARP sent Mike Lowry (right) to Virginia to spend time reconnecting with John Lunsford (left). Together they visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay tribute to those they knew and lost during the war.
Chris Ferenzi/Wish of a Lifetime

They forged unbreakable bonds on a fateful day in Vietnam in 1969. More than five decades later, they resumed their friendship. 

In the spring of 1969, two soldiers fought for their lives alongside each other at Landing Zone Oasis in Dak To, Vietnam. Spc. Mike Lowry, an air traffic controller, was days from his 21st birthday, and Spc. John Lunsford, a communicator, was 24.  

Both men, serving in the Army’s 366th Aviation Support Detachment, 1st Aviation Brigade, survived that night, which became known as the “Mother’s Day battle” because it fell on that Sunday, May 11. They were honored for their bravery, Mike with a Silver Star and John with a Bronze Star with “V” device.

spinner image closeup of a rusty dog tag with the text thank you veterans engraved in it, next to a flag of the United States

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Four of their comrades were killed — Sgt. 1st Class Mills Beale, 33, Spc. Edward Barlow, 21, Spc. Malcolm Bell, 18, and Staff Sgt. Thomas Bumgarner, 36, who died of wounds several days later.

Soon afterward, Mike went on leave, and by the time he returned, John had left the unit. They had no way of contacting each other, and it seemed their paths would probably never cross again.

Both married and went on to have full lives. Mike worked in construction out West before settling in Montana where he has a small plumbing shop. He and his wife, Jeniel, had seven children. John went back to Virginia and his job as a field representative with Blue Cross Blue Shield. He then had a 39-year career in banking; he and his wife, Sandy, had two daughters. 

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Mike spent much of the intervening five decades thinking about John and that fateful night in both their lives.

“In fact, he was the best one, and he and I kind of hit it off because we had a lot of the same values, and so we helped each other out as far as living the kind of life we wanted to live while we were there,” he told AARP Veteran Report.

Mike had done some searching and come up with nothing on John. Then, last year, Mike and Jeniel looked at a picture from Vietnam, saw John’s name tag and realized they had been spelling John’s name incorrectly. Jeniel googled the correct spelling and gave Mike a list of eight John Lunsfords to call.

“I remembered he was from over there by Newport News, [Virginia],” Mike recalled. “I called the first one, and this guy answered.”

Mike told the man who answered, “So this might sound a little strange, but I’m trying to get ahold of a friend of mine I served in Vietnam with.”

The man replied, “Where did you serve?”

Mike told him: “The Oasis.”

There was a pause, and the man asked, “Mike, is that you?”

It was indeed John Lunsford, Mike’s old brother-in-arms. “His was the very first number on the list, so I guess it was meant to be,” Mike said.

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John was flabbergasted. “Somebody you hadn’t seen in 40 years and you hear their voice and they identify themselves, you know, it was quite a deal,” he told AARP Veteran Report. “Immediately, as we’re talking, we go down memory lane and we’re thinking about what we did together. We were together not even an entire year.”

Fortuitously, John and Sandy had a trip to Montana in the works and took a day to drive and visit Mike and Jeniel. After more than 50 years apart, John and Mike’s friendship picked up where they’d left off.

spinner image a black and white photo shows mike lowry getting a silver star pinned on his uniform
Mike Lowry receives his Silver Star while in service. John Lunsford, on his right, would receive a Bronze Star.
Courtesy Wish of a Lifetime

“It was just like we’ve never been apart,” John said. “We had a lot of history to remember, but we were the same kind of same people. It was a unique thing. In 50 years, we had done different things, but his personality seemed the same, he was the same good guy.”

Mike had never forgotten what John did for him back in 1969. “We had wounded that I went to get, and I gave John my weapon and told him to cover me while I did that,” he recalled. “And he did it. There’s a lot of people that maybe wouldn’t have put their life in that much jeopardy.”

The Silver Star citation records Mike’s actions: “Unhesitatingly, he moved through the impacting rounds and small arms fire to his position on the perimeter, where he began to direct a deadly hail of fire on the enemy.” When a grenade wounded two men beside him, Mike braved enemy fire to carry one to safety, then ran back to tend to the other and continue fighting back.

After their day together and over subsequent phone calls, John asked Mike and Jeniel to visit him and Sandy in Virginia so they could visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial together. 

“I had been there on various May 11ths, which is easier to do if you live 200 miles away,” John said. Mike had never been to the wall.

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“I think about all that time that those four people have lost because of that night. And there are 58,000 other people on that wall. When you pin it down to somebody you knew and they are gone and you’re still here, it is emotional.

“When we all went to bed on May 10, those four guys were alive. Soon after 2 o’clock in the morning on May 11, they weren’t.”

In May this year, the AARP-affiliated charity Wish of a Lifetime flew Mike and Jeniel to Virginia, so they could reconnect with John and Sandy and travel to Washington to visit the Vietnam wall together. 

“It gets your attention,” Mike said of his first visit to the wall. “A lot of times, we try to suppress memories of Vietnam and things like that, but this was a good memory. It’s a touching, humbling experience.”

John said, “The difference for me was that I was there with Mike, and we had been there with Beale, Barlow, Bell and Bumgarner over 50 years ago.”

Mike reflected on being reunited with John after almost 54 years. “He’s special,” he said. “We kind of share our lives. It’s like we’ve been lifelong friends.”

AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime actively encourages veterans and their families to apply for a wish

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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