The Searchers of G.I. Joe Search and Rescue

The OC group goes into the California wilderness to find the missing—and to honor a brother who was swept away

The Searchers of G.I. Joe Search and Rescue

"Sweep the area slowly," Ken Le commands into a walkie talkie as he scans the yellow monitor screen before him. "No visual . . . no visual . . . Okay, I got eyes on something. Turn to your left."

Down a steep dirt pathway, past a maze of boulders and brush, a young man in a wetsuit, life vest and red helmet strides waist-deep through frigid water, lunging over rocks and branches while dragging a metal pole attached to an underwater camera through the current. White circles drift across a small gray screen playing a live feed from the camera. Le, a husky, baby-faced 18-year-old wearing an outback vest over a fluorescent-yellow T-shirt, peers closer at the image as two men hover over him. He shakes his head and lifts up the two-way radio once again.

"It's getting blurry," he says with disappointment. "All I see are bubbles."

It's barely 8 a.m. on June 25, and the clock is already moving too fast for the 16 volunteers of G.I. Joe Search & Rescue, scattered in work groups along the upper Kern River in Sequoia National Park. One of the fastest-flowing rivers in the West, the Kern is a beast this season—an unusually heavy snowmelt has produced violent waters that even expert paddlers won't dip their toes into.

But the team members, fueled by adrenalin and Red Bull, have caravanned 204 miles from Huntington Beach for the day's mission, and they are committed. Some scout for calmer currents; others use their ankles to anchor ropes tied to those in the water. One man pokes and prods the edges of the river with a branch, searching for "soft spots." A woman holds up binoculars to zoom in on the trees in the distance, scoping for "colors," for objects that may have gotten tangled inside their branches. 

As for what exactly they're looking for, Le calmly lists "articles of clothing, other clues." He pauses, then utters the words that bring both hope and dread: "And the bodies."

The bodies he's referring to are those of 25-year-old Minh Tu Nguyen of Westminster and 22-year-old Scott Neacato of Los Angeles, who both fell into the river 13 days prior, on June 13, and never resurfaced. The two were on an end-of-the-school-year camping trip with a group of friends in Ant Canyon near Johnsondale, and just for kicks, they decided to cross the river on a two-man inflatable raft tied to shore with a line. According to witnesses, other people had crossed the river, and despite wood signs warning, "Stay Out, Stay Alive," the water seemed calm. But when Nguyen and Neacato began rowing, the rapids became aggressive and capsized the craft, throwing them overboard. Neacato didn't know how to swim, and Nguyen tried to hold him up, but the monstrous currents soon dragged the two under. Neither was wearing a life jacket.

Without cell-phone reception, Minh's girlfriend, Kelly Van Nguyen, and a friend drove to the nearest landline, located in a shop 10 miles away. They called 911, and authorities arrived about 20 minutes later, at around 7 p.m., the light engulfing the riverbank with a glow somewhere between golden-hour-soft and sunset-foreboding. They searched the area until midnight, then continued the next day. At 6 p.m., with no sign of either person, resources were scaled back, and the effort was reclassified from a "rescue" to a "recovery," as chances of survival were slim.

Since the incident, Nguyen's and Neacato's families and friends have hiked up and down the 21-mile stretch of the upper Kern, their noses scorched by the unsympathetic sun.

"Each time we go, we have a lot of hope," Kelly says. "But then we see how big everything is, and we suddenly feel so small and hopeless."

Neacato's father, Edison, has been camping at the site for a week and a half and vows not to leave until his son is found. Wearing a blue-fleece pullover, his hair is disheveled, his eyes worn. He holds the hand of his daughter, Melissa. "I dreamt about him a couple of times," he says. "That was nice."

Some of the family members are handed life jackets and inserted into the G.I. Search & Joe Rescue teams, which have names like Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

"I'll do anything they tell me to do," says Nguyen's younger brother, Vince.

Neither Ken Le nor the 15 other members knew Nguyen or Neacato. But their motto is "Helping You Find Yours," and the Orange County-based group, mostly made up of Vietnamese American twentysomethings, assists families whose loved ones have gone missing, traveling to search sites across California, from rapids to canyons, creeks to forests—no charge, no reimbursement, no nonsense. Nguyen's father heard about the self-taught, self-motivated rescuers through a friend, who knew of the months-old organization's sobering mission, and reached out to them; the group responded within the day and drove up to the Kern River within 24 hours.

The all-volunteer organization is altruistic but was born of tragedy. It was founded by 27-year-old Victoria Le (no relation to Ken) after her younger brother, Joe, fell into the San Gabriel River during a hike earlier this year and disappeared. Frustrated by what she felt was a lack of support from trained professionals, she relied on the help of more than 100 volunteers rallied together mostly through Facebook to find Joe and pull his body from the river on April 3. The outpouring of concern from strangers surprised her, comforted her in the Les' time of mourning—and made her realize her family wouldn't be the only one with a loved member missing, with little hope to locate a body and find peace.

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