UPDATE, 4/14/16: After two months of searching, Roy Eklund, an 83-year-old Lake Dallas veteran recently profiled in the Observer, has found the body of his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, 65-year-old Michael Garrett. The Plano Medical Center donated it to the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility in Huntsville, a research facility with its predominant focus on the study of applications of forensic science to the human body. It's a school to shape young forensic scientists from across the country.
Garrett died on Feb. 24. and, despite the hospital's assurances otherwise, Plano Medical Center not only received him as a patient from Lewisville but also signed off on the order for his body to be donated, according to Garrett's death certificate.
Eklund claims his friend was a veteran who, if qualified, deserved to be buried at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, not dissected by aspiring forensic scientists.
"These are the same people (medical center) who told me they had no record of Garrett's death," he says. "They just took a person and just threw him away without digging around at all to find out who he was.
"I’m wondering how many times this happened to other veterans (labeled indigents)," Eklund adds. "What happens to homeless people (many of whom are veterans)?"
Below is Eklund's story to find his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, a former soldier whose demons haunted him until the end:
ORIGINAL STORY: All 83-year-old Roy Eklund wants is to find his friend’s body. The 65-year-old Michael Garrett died either in late February or early March. Eklund, a veteran who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, didn’t find out about his friend’s death until a few weeks ago. He was listed as Garrett's only known contact at Denton Regional Hospital, where a stack of medical records documented a host of problems his friend had faced since returning home from the Vietnam War.
Garrett, though, died en route from a medical center in Lewisville to a medical center in Plano, Eklund says, and he can’t seem to figure out why no one from either medical center ever called to inform him of his friend’s death. He had to find out from the manager of the trailer park where Garrett had been living in a travel trailer he purchased a year or so ago from Eklund. Neither medical center, he claims, seems to know what happened to his friend’s body.
"Or they just don't want to tell me," he says.
Lewisville Medical Center spokesperson CeCe Clemens says she'd be happy to release a condition report on a current patient, "but unfortunately we do not have a patient by this name." Probably because he died either late February or early March. Over at Plano Medical Center, spokesperson Melissa Sauvage points out that if Garrett was labeled indigent, his body would have been sent to the medical examiner's office since the county determines what happens to indigents when they die. "[But] we have no information on this patient," she says.
Eklund, who now looks like a grandfather instead of the soldier he once was, fears Garrett may have been labeled indigent since he didn’t have any next of kin or health insurance. His friend also looked like someone who lived off the grid, a street person instead of a decorated war veteran, with receding white hair and an unkempt white beard.
He also worries that Garrett was either fed to a mortuary's furnace or sent to a medical school as a cadaver for dissection. Eklund contacted both Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office, which handles Denton County, and Collin County Medical Examiner's Office, which handles Plano, but both outfits, he says, claimed not to have any knowledge of Garrett's corpse's whereabouts.
“It’s been a big circle jerk,” he says. “Nobody's giving me information. He was a Vietnam veteran and part of the Black Widow unit. I just want to send him over to the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, but they wouldn’t tell me what happened to him.”
The Black Widows were part of the 188th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam and flew numerous operations with special forces teams, earning the respect of both grunts and Green Berets for saving their lives numerous times during the war. Garrett served as a door gunner and proudly displayed a black widow tattoo with a military call number underneath it on his left shoulder. He also wore a bracelet made out of helicopter parts. But the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association Black Widows & Spiders, a nonprofit war veterans organization, doesn't have him listed in their records.
Richard Green, or "Black Widow 36," searched for Garrett's name among the 1,400 black Widows who served between 1966 and 1972 listed with his war veterans organization. Green says he's never heard Garrett's name, but he's heard a lot of these false Widow stories, checked out way too many of them only to learn they're never true. "A lot of people wanted to be Black Widows, not all were," he says. "In fact, a lot of 'vets' never served. It's called 'stolen valor.'"
Eklund, though, had taken Garrett to the veterans hospital on several occasions. He also isn't worried about his friend stealing valor to justify his tattoo. He simply wants to find his Garrett's body and hopefully give him a proper burial at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, although he'll settle for a local graveyard with a proper headstone.
"But that ain't going to happen," he says.
Eklund still feels the scars of the Korean and Vietnam wars more than 50 years later. They’re more spiritual than physical burdens, the kind he’d rather not discuss on this early Saturday morning in Lake Dallas, a small lakeside community on the northern banks of Lewisville Lake. “War wasn’t pleasant” is all he will say about his time overseas.
Sitting in the living room of his small but comfortable home, he drinks a cup of coffee with his 80-year-old wife of 17 years, Susan, who sheds a tear when she thinks about Garrett. She’d been feeding him each morning at 10 a.m. for breakfast and 4 p.m. for dinner after his 57-year-old common-law wife of 25 years, Betty White, died in a car accident in August 2013 not far from where the Eklunds live in Lake Dallas.
The accident happened on the Interstate 35 service road at the end of a school day. White had taken Garrett’s blue pickup, which he used to haul scrap iron, to the grocery store when a car traveling at a triple-digit speeds slammed into her. Four other vehicles were also involved in the accident, but she was the only one who died that day. She was buried in a pauper’s grave up in Sanger, a small town approximately 15 miles north of Denton, leaving Garrett to battle his demons alone.
“When Betty got killed, we realized that he was in trouble,” Susan says. “He had no vehicle. The accident took out his truck that he hauled scrap in. So he had no income. None. We did his laundry and we bought clothes and shoes for him.”
Garrett lived in an old mobile home with White a couple of blocks down from the Eklunds. It was a trashy place, and they lived in only one room of the three-bedroom mobile home with rotted out floors and nests for rats and other critters. She received Social Security, and he hauled scrap iron to earn cash. “It was a hand-to-mouth type situation,” Eklund says.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he adds. “He was not a very nice guy.”
“But he was nice to us,” Susan interjects. “He loved us dearly.”
He was also paranoid. Really paranoid, Eklund stresses. Self-medicating didn’t help his situation either. He’d always talk about the unknown “they” who were often following him or hiding in the next shadow. After his wife died, he continued to talk with her as if she were among the living and often experienced visions of her. “He was just a lost soul,” Susan says.
Not long after his wife’s death, Garrett found a letter from one of those places that finds people money and learned that an inheritance awaited him in Florida. His uncle and aunt, who raised him for a time when he was younger, had left the money for him, yet he needed a birth certificate and a photo ID to claim it. But he had neither. He also didn’t have a Social Security card.
“The accident cost him everything,” Eklund says. “She had his wallet with her to buy some food, and it was gone. Later on, his favorite dog, Black Jack, died.”
“He had a horrible year,” Susan says.
Eklund spent a year helping him get his birth certificate and took him to the Social Security office to pick up a copy of his Social Security card, which is where he learned that Garrett had somehow acquired two Social Security numbers, both under different names, which led them to a locked room and a superior arriving to help them.
“I knew some of his military career,” Eklund points out. “But when they told me I had to leave, I knew he had done some [questionable] things for Uncle Sam. I’ve been down that road a little bit, and it’s like I say, ‘It wasn’t for watching a bank robbery.’”
“He was very secretive,” Susan adds.
The first time Eklund took Garrett to the hospital in Denton, he was damn near dead. An artery in his lower intestines had burst and a pool of blood had formed. It was “touch and go for a while,” Eklund recalls. Garrett also suffered from two hernias, but since they weren’t life threatening, he had to find a way to live with them. “My thing is who the hell is going to hire a guy with two hernias?” he asks. “The rules say this, but no one will bend them to give the guy a break.”
The second time he took Garrett to the hospital in Denton, he was nearly dead again. He’d found his friend rolled up in a blanket on his front porch. Eklund rushed him to the emergency room. He’d over medicated with methamphetamine and ended up at a mental hospital in Wichita Falls, where he spent three months under evaluation before being dropped off in Denton with no money and a duffle bag. He walked over to a nearby medical office and called Eklund for a ride home.
The third time Garrett ended up in the hospital, he died.
Eklund received a call shortly before Garrett’s death from the trailer park manager where Garrett had moved after he received his small inheritance from his uncle and aunt. She had called wanting to know if he’d seen him because his truck was missing, and no one else had seen him coming or going from the trailer park.
Garrett eventually called him from the medical center in Lewisville, seeking his binder with his military information. Eklund took it to him as well as his mail, which Garrett had been sending to the Eklunds’ home since his wife’s death. But he wasn’t allowed to stand by his friend’s bedside like he’d done in the past in Denton because Garrett was suffering from an aneurysm.
He immediately went upstairs at the medical center to speak with Garrett’s caseworker and told him about the stack of medical records at Denton Regional where he was also listed as his friend’s only contact. “If he needs anything, contact me; and if you need proof that I am his only known contact, Denton Regional can supply it,” Eklund recalls telling the caseworker. But hospital staff wouldn’t give him any information about Garrett.
A couple of weeks later, Garrett’s trailer park manager told him that his friend had died.
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“They [medical staff] wouldn’t tell him anything,” Susan says. “They just tuned him out.”
Eklund contacted the medical center in Plano but learned nothing about his friend’s body. He filled out forms for Collin County Medical Examiner's Office but found nothing. A staff member at Lewisville Medical Center, he says, did provide two possible death dates: either the last week in February or March 5. He checked with Lewisville City Hall, but there were no records of his friend’s death. City staff, however, did provide forms that he could fill out and send to Austin to receive Garrett’s death certificate.
But he wants more than just a death certificate. He wants to find out what happened to his friend’s body so that he can give him a proper burial among the soldiers’ crosses at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.
“My sole mission is getting him a burial,” Eklund says. “He served, and this is the thing that you do for a person who served.”