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.
“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.
“It was so far away and we were so busy putting men on the moon,” she said. “It was the heyday of the era.”
When Millard first started searching for Vietnam veterans, they were not much more than names on a page. But as she learned more about the conflict and met the men who served there, Millard grew to care deeply for the men and their families. She often asks them about their faith, prays with them, and encourages them to encourage one another. She’s seen some men quit drinking and others marry girlfriends they’ve been living with for years. Some have even accepted Christ.
Millard is usually the one looking for the veterans. But in a reversal of roles, Vincent “Jersey” Scapellato, of Vineland, N.J., sought out Millard in 2009. She laughed remembering his email. He wanted her to find the soldier who had helped him to a waiting helicopter after he’d been shot. But he only had a date and a nickname—Porky.
Unlike 21st-century soldiers, who deploy and return as a unit, many Vietnam vets went overseas as a group of draftees to serve until their individual time was up or they were wounded, whichever came first. They often knew each other only by nicknames or first names. War zone extractions like Scapellato’s severed ties hastily and, most often, permanently.
On Feb. 22, 1970, Scapellato took point as his platoon patrolled the jungles of Chu Lai. His friend, Joe, led another platoon on the opposite bank of a river. The region was a free-fire zone, an area where soldiers were authorized to shoot first and ask questions later.
In the dense tropical brush Scapellato heard someone approaching. “I just opened up with my M16 and emptied the magazine,” he said. He thought he was shooting at Viet Cong.
Moments later, Scapellato took a bullet to the knee in a barrage of return fire—friendly fire. The second platoon, unbeknownst to Scapellato, had doubled back on his side of the river. Despite emptying his magazine, Scapellato didn’t hit any of his fellow soldiers, but the bullet he took came from Joe.
Scapellato’s lieutenant, known only as Porky, put the injured infantryman on his back and carried him to a medical evacuation helicopter. The last thing he remembered after being strapped to the transport was waving down to his platoon as the chopper rose and carried him to what would be four months of medical treatment in Vietnam, Japan, and the United States. He never saw his buddies again. He never said goodbye. And he never told Porky “thank you.”
Years later, Scapellato still thought about that debt of gratitude he owed. But how would he find a man named Porky almost 40 years removed from the jungles of Vietnam? If anyone could find him, Millard could, other vets assured him. But Scapellato had his doubts.
“There’s no way she’ll be able to find this guy,” he recalled thinking after contacting Millard.
In addition to all of the standard research tools Millard had at her disposal, she also had her own database of information gleaned from years of research, including a growing network of new acquaintances. She also just happened to have a copy of a casualty list from 1970. Millard found another injured soldier from Scapellato’s unit, Bravo Company 4th/3rd, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, and called him to ask about Porky.
“I really think I have God’s help,” Millard said. “I’ll find some weird little tidbit and it turns out that it leads to the person I’m searching for.”
A few days after Scapellato emailed her, Millard wrote him to say that she had found Porky, aka Gary Renner, of California. Scapellato was stunned. Millard’s search for Porky ended up locating about 400 men from the unit.
The group’s October 2009 reunion in St. Louis not only reconnected Scapellato with good friends but also brought a surprising revelation. Since the day he was shot, Scapellato believed he had made a critical error that almost cost him his life and that of his friend. But at the reunion, he discovered the other platoon had doubled back without notifying anyone. He had no way to know he was firing on his fellow soldiers.
Earlier this year, members of Charlie Company 5th/46th, 198th Light Infantry Brigade met for a reunion in Nashville, Tenn. They invited Millard to express their gratitude for her work. Ed Arndt, a retired Nashville accountant, helps organize what has become an annual event. He enlisted Millard’s help in tracking down hard-to-find veterans like Mike Ayers. Arndt had been looking for the former soldier since 1973. Through an internet search, Millard found almost a dozen men with that name. Phones calls to each finally scored the right one.
“He was the greatest find,” Arndt said. “There were 10-15 of us who were really close at Ft. Hood. The great thing is when Kitty finds guys for us, you get to talk to them and know they’re OK. You just don’t talk about [Vietnam] to anyone else.”
Doug Dowson attended the Nashville reunion, his second. He was one of Millard’s “finds” and remembered the call he received from her three years ago. It caught him off guard. “Wow,” he remembered thinking. “Somebody has an interest in us.”
Millard uses the same script for the thousands of phone calls she has made. The call to Dowson went something like this:
Millard: Is this Doug Dowson of Charlie Company 5th/46th, 198th Light Infantry Brigade who served in Vietnam from September 1968 to September 1969?
Millard: Welcome home and thank you for your service to your country.
After that the responses vary from stunned silence to “Are you with Veterans Affairs?”
“No,” she replies. “I’m just a normal housewife.”
A normal housewife whose unusual service has brought peace and comfort to thousands of men still suffering from a 40-year-old war.
“My purpose is to help them heal from the traumatic experiences they had,” Millard said. “I can listen to them so they can go on with their lives.”