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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13 comments
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Henxinsand

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mazesclarson
mazesclarson

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Long Hoang
Long Hoang

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Heavynle
Heavynle

If the professionals are so equipped and trained, why are they not in the water looking? If the "professional" did their job, maybe G.I. Joe Search and Rescue wouldn't have to go out there and risks their lives. With little training and equipment, they bravely lend a helping hand and expect nothing in return whereas the professionals get paid (with our tax dollars) yet sit around and watch families go search for their love ones. If it was your son you wouldn't say the same.

whatisgoodforu.com
whatisgoodforu.com

Please get your terminology correct when disparaging a large group of people.

Most firefighters, police, sheriff, etc. are paid public service employees. They are professionals, they get paid for performing their duties.

Most SAR personnel are volunteers that devote significant amounts of time, energy, and money in becoming trained and certified in Search and Rescue. They are utilized by the aforementioned agencies to assist in operations such as a swiftwater search, resuce, or recovery. The training is extensive for a reason, the last thing anyone wants to see during an operation are additional victims that need to be recovered due to a lack of training.

I applaud this group for their motivation, energy, and commitment but I question where they are focusing their efforts. There are many established organizations that can train them all to truly become assets in the field and mimize the probability that they too become victims, good intentions notwithstanding.

Itwister23
Itwister23

Remember not too long ago, on national news more than a dozen of Fire Fighters in east bay San Francisco standing and watching a man slowly drown and disapear in the ocean, because of no budget or what ever reason???? They are proffesionals. We should encourage them and need some PROFFESIONAL volunteer to train them. These people are good hearted.

anotherview
anotherview

I applaud the motivation of these citizens but I would question their judgement. Almost all SAR in California is done by volunteers, through law enforcement agencies that demand strict training and experience for a reason. Statistically most swiftwater fatalities are well-meaning, poorly trained would-be-rescuers. The reasons most SAR teams are cautious about recoveries in swiftwater conditions is not from a lack of compassion, as implied by the articles author, but a knowledge of the risk. Is it worth losing a living person in the effort to recover someone who has passed? As a write this hundreds of well trained, experienced SAR volunteers are gathering in Canada to mourn the loss of a SAR member lost during a training in swiftwater. These are volunteers too. Ones that have dedicated their time/energy/money to get the needed training to help those they have never met and even they sometimes find themselves giving the ultimate sacrifice. Unskilled volunteers will find these risks multiplied exponentially. I would encourage these folks to take the path of the far less media saturated world of established volunteer SAR. They will gain the training and experience to make wise decisions in the field and not put others at risk should they experience the unthinkable and need skilled, trained SAR individuals to come to their aid.

Noble motivation does not always translate to thoughtful, experienced behavior in the field. I hope they learn the lessons of the generations of rescuers that have gone before them, and not learn painful lessons the hard way.

Observer
Observer

I'm getting so tired of "professional" heroes. Train, train, train. Bring in helicopters. Buy equipment. More training.

You know what? People have been pulling people --- and bodies, sadly -- out of rivers for centuries. I'm not sure where you get your statistics, but I seriously it doubts to situations like this -- more likely, it's a mom going after a child or a friend jumping in for a friend right away. Those are emotional decisions, not like this group.

I admire the GI Joe group and think they need to continue their efforts. Common sense is a powerful tool -- let the "professionals" decide its too dangerous, or too expensive, or whatever, then just do it yourselves.

PCT1980
PCT1980

You're so tired? I hadn't thought it was so exhausting watching people train and risk their lives for others.... And common sense led people to cross rivers when they shouldn't and ignore signs that warned them of danger.

Michaelkite
Michaelkite

The only difference between volunteer professionals and volunteer amateurs is training. Let’s hope GI Joe gets some before they get hurt or hurt someone else. Just getting out there and “doing it yourself”, especially swift water rescue, is a recipe for disaster.

PCT1980
PCT1980

I remember Victoria Le's comments, as described by the media after the loss of her brother, were uncharitable but I think what she is currently doing is laudable. From what was described in the article the emphasis of her team seems to be search and not rescue. When they located the body of the drowning victim they didn't attempt an actual recovery but called in a trained Swift Water Rescue team.

Marie
Marie

Derrick Rush has also been swept away in the Kern River this week.

 
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