Dennis Joyner had to wait 50 years to thank the man who saved his life in Vietnam.
Joyner, a Longwood resident who is now 70, was a 20-year-old infantryman with a wife and newborn son on June 26, 1969, when he tripped a land mine while on patrol. The explosion blew off one of his legs and shredded the other so badly it had to be amputated. It took off his left arm below the elbow.
He might have bled to death or died of shock or infection. But a young medic with a Tennessee accent sprinted to his side, helping to tie a series of tourniquets around his limbs, administering morphine and ferrying him to a medevac helicopter.
On Friday, at the Old Florida Grill & Oyster House near Cocoa, one of Dewey “Doc” Hayes’ favorite haunts, Joyner finally got the chance he’d wanted for half a century.
The words rushed out in a torrent.
“Thank you! Thank you!” he said, his body shaking with emotion as Hayes, now 70 too, embraced him.
“I’ve been trying to find you for so damn long,” Joyner said. “You been hiding?”
After five surgeries and five months in various hospitals, Joyner had gone back to college before working as a court administrator in Pennsylvania and as a volunteer for the Disabled American Veterans, the organization created by Congress to help wounded vets and their families. In 1977, he was named the nation’s “Handicapped American of the Year,” and he served as national commander of the DAV in 1983 and ’84, work he continues to this day.
He moved to Seminole County in 1989, eventually becoming supervisor of elections there. Hayes, meanwhile, had gone back to Tennessee, working construction and driving trucks before relocating to Brevard County in 1997 to escape the ice and snow. He had wondered about Joyner over the years, but he was never sure he wanted to revisit the memories.
“All this time, we were living just a couple of counties apart,” said Joyner, shaking his head at the man across the table. “All this time, I just wanted to thank him for saving my life.”
Both had been drafted into service. Both were young and terrified.
On that afternoon in the Mekong Delta jungle, Joyner — a former high school quarterback and baseball pitcher — had been ordered to walk point, leading the way along a narrow path. Maybe he stepped on something. Maybe there was a booby-trapped branched he had brushed aside.
“I was 200 yards from him,” Hayes said. “I heard the explosion and I took off running (toward the sound) … Here I was a kid fresh out of the tobacco fields … It wasn’t the worst I seen, but it was the worst I seen that survived.”
Joyner doesn’t remember the explosion, only landing a split second later and seeing his body torn apart.
“I immediately started screaming, wanting to die, because I could see what was wrong,” Joyner said. “My sarge had to slap me to keep me from going into shock. Told me I had a lot to live for.”
He remembers Hayes giving him morphine. After that, the events turn blurry.
Joyner always considered himself lucky to have survived, not that he didn’t struggle with some of the memories or with anger over the depth of his injuries. But in traveling the world, in giving inspirational talks, in laying the wreath one Veterans Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, he has come to appreciate his extraordinary life.
“I mean, I lost three limbs — boom! They’re blown off,” he said. “But that’s all that’s wrong with me. … I’ve had a good life.”
Hayes would have nightmares for years, though they come less often now. Once he made it out of Vietnam, he wanted nothing more to do with medicine.
Both men divorced and remarried. Both had children — Joyner three and Hayes four. But while Joyner searched and found several of the soldiers from his unit, Hayes never looked. When a fellow infantryman wrote him last fall on Joyner’s behalf, Hayes almost threw it away.
“I don’t know who the hell this guy is,” he thought. But he opened it anyway.
Inside, he found Joyner’s phone number and a plea to call him.
The two have chatted by phone a couple of times, but, they said, it’s not the same as being face to face.
“In my eyes, you’re a hero,” Joyner said.
“Nah,” Hayes said. “The real heroes are the 58,000 on that (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall. … They’re the ones who didn’t make it home.”
© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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