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Volunteer scout

"Volunteer scout" Continued...

“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.

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

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