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REVERED: Millard in her home office. The photos and documents on the wall chronicle her husband Bob's time in the military.
Photo by Bonnie Pritchett
REVERED: Millard in her home office. The photos and documents on the wall chronicle her husband Bob's time in the military.

Volunteer scout

Military | Kitty Millard has become an expert at tracking down Vietnam veterans and reuniting them with long-lost buddies

On Oct. 10, 1968, Dennis Pfaff led a patrol of U.S. soldiers through the rice paddies of Vietnam’s Chu Lai area. The men of Bravo Company 4th/21st, 11th Light Infantry Brigade avoided the footpaths and dirt tracks that passed for roads for fear of tripping a land mine. One misstep could take a leg or a life.

The men waded as far as they could through the water before they had to climb up on the bank near the site of an earlier explosion that foundered a tank but injured no one. But when the patrol reached the site of the first explosion, another mine went off.

Pfaff was wounded but the two men behind him, Bill and Jerry, took the brunt of the blast. Pfaff managed to drag himself back to Bill’s side before realizing his friend was dead. A piece of shrapnel to the heart quickly drained his life. But Jerry was conscious, in pain, and scared.

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“I’ll never forget the scream, the terror he was going through,” Pfaff recalled. The unit evacuated Jerry to a hospital where he survived surgery but not the night.

The men’s deaths haunted Pfaff for 38 years, through marriages and divorces, bouts of drinking and anxiety. Immediately after the explosion, Pfaff thought Bill had tripped the mine wire. But in the confusion of the aftermath, he convinced himself his foot set off the blast that left so much destruction behind. Until he met Kitty Millard, Pfaff believed he would go to his grave carrying the guilt for that explosion.

Pfaff learned from a friend, also a Vietnam vet, that Millard was looking for him. The 76-year-old widow, grandmother, and Bible study teacher spends her days scouring archived military logs, local libraries, census reports, and the internet to find Vietnam veterans, a voluntary task she considers an honor. Her search for Pfaff started as a hunt for another soldier from the same company. Once she found the first soldier, Millard continued her search for more. Pfaff ended up as one of 500 men from the Bravo Company 4th/21st that Millard helped find. Those efforts culminated in the group’s first reunion in April 2006. 

Today, veterans revere Millard for her ability to locate long-lost friends starting with only minimal clues. But back then, she was just getting started.

In 1999, Millard helped her husband Bob update his West Point Academy class roster. Four years later, a woman recalled that work and asked Millard to find the chaplain who officiated her husband’s funeral in 1969. The woman also wanted to find the man who served as her husband’s forward officer during the war. Millard, who has never met a stranger, used her vast network of friends and acquaintances to find the men. Word about her uncanny ability to find people spread. Others soon started asking Millard to find long-lost friends, family, and veterans. During the last seven years, Millard has accounted for—dead or alive—at least 2,000 Vietnam vets. Those who reconnect by phone or email often choose to meet face-to-face. The ensuing reunions have become a source of unexpected healing, rekindled friendships, and renewed memories.

“I think she saved my life,” Pfaff said. “She certainly made a tremendous change.”

Pfaff hadn’t talked to anyone from his days in Vietnam for 30 years. But he decided to go to the reunion, curious to see how his fellow soldiers had fared in life. While retelling his story, Pfaff realized memories are best recalled through the filter of other witnesses. One of the other men that took part in the patrol that day also recalled the incident, only differing from Pfaff’s account in one very important detail. 

“Stop beating yourself up,” the man told him. “You didn’t trip the booby trap. Bill did.”

A second, unrelated conversation, confirmed the man’s account. Although Pfaff still felt a sense of responsibility to the men he led, the revelation that he was not directly responsible for their deaths helped dispel some of the guilt and anger he had carried for all those years.

Millard attended the Bravo Company reunion and called it “glorious.” Pfaff told her the night he found out what really happened during that patrol, he slept like a baby for the first time since returning from the war.

Since then, Millard has attended many reunions, facing her fear of flying to travel across the country to meet the men she has only known through email and phone conversations. She’s often hailed as the guest of honor. The experience is humbling for a woman who admits knowing little about the Vietnam War prior to her association with the veterans. During the 1960s, other issues of national importance occupied her mind. Millard’s home in Nassau Bay, Texas, is part of a bigger community that serves NASA’s Johnson Space Center and its spaceflight contractors. Her husband, who died last year, worked in the fledgling space industry, which provided a distraction from the conflict overseas.

—Bonnie Pritchett is a writer living in League City, Texas

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