SIOUX CITY | Todd Landen served three tours of duty overseas. He'd love to serve a fourth.
Landen, 46, is a soldier. It's what he wanted to do since listening to Vietnam War veterans talk about fighting their way through the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Landen hasn't waged war on an enemy since July 7, 2006, when an IED detonated beneath his Humvee, knocking him out and trapping him inside while a firefight raged at Kirkuk, Iraq, one of the war's hottest hot spots.
He came to enough to unlock the unit, allowing himself to be pulled from the blaze. He drifted in and out of consciousness -- in and out of the firefight -- for the next 40 minutes, suffering from a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, two collapsed lungs and more.
As Landen's time on the battlefield ended, his long fight for health and security began.
Twenty-one surgeries and innumerable therapy sessions have followed since that blast nine years ago. Landen and his wife, Aprel Landen, and their daughter, Brianna, 9, have seen more hospitals, motels, doctors and medical pros than they dreamed possible, tracing a recovery path that stretches from a hospital in Kirkuk to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to Georgia, to Texas, to Sioux Falls, Dakota Dunes and Sioux City.
The medical trek continued Tuesday at West High, as Todd Landen directed a question to Donald Trump, Republican candidate for president, the billionaire with all the answers. On this day, Trump stepped from the podium and walked to Landen. "These are our greatest people, the wounded warriors," Trump said.
"I wanted to know what a Trump administration would do to support our wounded warriors," Landen said. "Trump turned it around by asking me a question," Landen said. "He asked if I was troubled by treatment with the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs)."
"We're having to drive 90 miles for routine appointments," Aprel Landen said in an interview Thursday. "Todd has had two surgeries done here locally and now we cannot see that doctor for follow-ups because it's not allowed under the VA. So, we have to drive."
Not all private providers are approved for care under the scope of the Veterans Administration. So, while the Landens continue to settle into a Sioux City home they purchased one year ago, they find themselves increasingly on the move, driving north on Interstate 29 as many as three times per week for services that, in many cases, are offered in Sioux City, or 10 minutes from home in Dakota Dunes.
Prior to his question for "The Donald," the Landens say several of Todd's medical records were not being shared between the VA and a neurosurgeon in Dakota Dunes. Things changed in a matter of 24 hours.
"We communicated all day on Wednesday with Trump's campaign manager," Aprel said. "They communicated with us, as did (U.S. Rep.) Steve King's office. The records are being shared today. Maybe that's a coincidence."
Aprel Landen hesitated while detailing their saga. She and Todd have been treated warmly and well by dozens of providers in the VA health-care network. Increasingly, she said, it has become difficult.
"We are stuck in a bureaucracy," she said. "People tell us their hands are tied. Well, that's not the answer."
Officials with the VA have also told the Landens that Todd's injuries qualify the family to have modifications made to their home through a vocational rehabilitation program. The split-level structure requires Todd, who walks with a cane, to use steps to access the home. There are times he has trouble moving down the home's narrow hallways. Electrical outlets and kitchen cabinets are difficult, nearly impossible, for him to access.
"The VA can help with changes, but it might take up to two years," Aprel said.
Fortunately, those costly challenges are being met privately through the Homebuilders Association of Greater Siouxland, a group of contractors, craftsmen and service providers that met the family and learned of their predicament, giving rise to both The Landen Project and a broader Project for Patriots, the primary reason Todd and Aprel Landen attended the Trump rally.
Jim Miller was summoned to the podium before Trump's appearance Tuesday. Miller, owner/operator of Scott's Lawn Service, detailed improvements planned for the Landen home, work that may ultimately require up to $150,000. Miller got the effort going by offering to care for the family's lawn for one year, his thanks for Todd Landen's sacrifice.
"I didn't feel we needed the assistance, but after a few trips to the hospital it became evident this isn't just for my benefit, but for my family," Todd Landen said.
Steve Struthers, of Modern Kitchen Design and president of Projects for Patriots, said local contractors will lead efforts to equip the Landen home with a handicapped-accessible elevator. Ground will be broken Wednesday for a 700-square-foot master wing addition.
"Seventy percent of the materials and 100 percent of the labor are committed already," Struthers said.
Halls will be widened, new kitchen cabinets will be installed, the outlets will be raised and the kitchen sink will be lowered, allowing for easier access for Todd and Jake, his service dog, who will arrive as soon as the renovation is complete.
In many ways, this is a local/military "Extreme Home Makeover," during which the Landens will be relocated, allowing dozens of volunteers to work around the clock. If all goes well, the Landens could return to their "new" home by Feb. 1.
Breezy Struthers Drake, another member of the Projects for Patriots group, said the effort must have $20,000 for work to continue full-speed. A fundraiser set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday involves a social hour and 7 p.m. movie screening of "The Hornet's Nest," a documentary that follows Landen's platoon within the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, detailing a story of survival on the front lines.
Landen, who served as a consultant for the project and is listed in the credits, will answer questions from the audience after the screening. Donations will be accepted for Projects for Patriots.
"We may have people who give $5 and those who give $100," said Struthers Drake, a Modern Kitchen Design principal who continues to spread the word about the effort.
Landen said he'd do the same. He sees this important work as his fourth tour of duty. There are other local veterans who are struggling in their home and having difficulty reaching out to those who can help.
"I was taken out of the fight early. I wish I was still there," he said. "This (Projects for Patriots) gives me a sense of purpose, even if it's asking one to humble himself to accept the help of others."