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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

Victoria approached county sheriffs, told them that she had a group of volunteers ready to help and asked for some guidance. "They said, 'You guys are on your own. We don't want to be liable,'" she recounts. Though they can't restrict civilian aid, officials never encourage untrained volunteers to help with rescue missions, as they can complicate efforts and even get into trouble themselves.  

"It was very hazardous for them to do this," McDonald says. "They were warned that the conditions were very dangerous, and they could slip and fall and become casualties."

But the searchers kept going. A former Eagle Scout with training in first aid, 24-year-old Tim Nguyen of Huntington Beach (no relation to Minh or Kelly) wanted to help as soon as he saw the posting on Facebook. "I felt this is my calling," he says. "Authorities wanted to just wait for a body to wash up while the family was wondering, 'Is he alive?' If someone wants to help, why deny them?"

The sun went down, and the search continued the next day with even more vigor. That Sunday, 120 supporters showed up to help look for a man whom most had never met. In the afternoon, someone spotted Joe's olive-colored backpack. Hours later, while tied to a tree and poking around in the rushing currents, a volunteer named Santos Avila Navarrete discovered Joe's body, pinned against a submerged tree stump and covered with branches and debris.

Santos, along with his wife, Leticia Trujillo, and other volunteers helped to pull the body ashore. Trujillo told the Weekly in April that though they were glad to help the family, they were not psychologically ready for the experience and had trouble sleeping in the days that followed. "Who's prepared to pull a dead person from a river and hold them in their arms?" she asked. "Our feelings have nothing to do with Joe or fear of the dead, but with having your own mortality stare you straight in the face."

"I don't think anyone was prepared for it," Tim adds. "I don't think it set in that we were looking for a body . . . maybe some pieces of clothing or clues." But for him, the recovery wasn't as much traumatic as it was inspiring. "Mentally, it makes you stronger. I was just thinking, 'I gotta man up and do what I gotta do for the family.'"

Santos, a 39-year-old artist in Los Angeles, says humbly, "I just did what I did."

When her brother's body surfaced, Victoria broke down. Though, this time, there was comfort in her sadness, she says. "He's found. He's not stuck in the river in the cold. We're gonna get him a good funeral and put him to rest," she recalls thinking. In honor of Joe, Victoria felt it appropriate, even necessary to help other families receive the same sense of peace and closure she was able to get. Instead of giving flowers at his memorial, she asked friends and family, donate to her new organization, G.I. Joe Search & Rescue, so she could afford outdoor equipment for future expeditions.

California has numerous volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) units activated by law enforcement when necessary. These rescue specialists are on call 24/7 and go through hours of intense training each year in areas such as emergency medical practices, rope rescues and man-tracking. Though members of G.I. Joe Search & Rescue plan to go through proper SAR training and become certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), they work independently of deputies at their own risk. In the meantime, they're publicizing themselves through social media and are hosting a benefit concert on Aug. 20 (the details for which will eventually be posted at www.gij411.org).

Last month, the group drove up to the Bay Area to participate in a three-day search for Michelle Le (no relation to Victoria), a 26-year-old female nursing student who was last seen leaving Kaiser Hospital in Hayward on May 27. They found out about the case the same way Victoria had put out the call for Joe's disappearance: Facebook. Her case has been classified as a homicide. Volunteers scoped remote canyons and glades in the East Bay hills, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

While Michelle has not yet been found, her father, Son Le, is grateful for the searchers. "They had open arms and didn't ask for anything in return," he says.

* * *

"Watch out for sinkholes," warns Khang Phi, as the group huddles around him. "If you step in one, you can get trapped."

The former military man gives a safety rundown at the Kern River mission site: If you lose balance and get swept away, lift your feet up and sit in a "chair" position.  Stay calm and don't try to fight the current. Swim parallel to the shoreline. Drink lots of water.  

Phi was a friend of Joe's and felt he could use his U.S. Army experience to help the group. Before team members enter the water, he checks the knots on their harnesses.

Vincent Pham, the organization's director of operations, emphasizes that safety comes first in every mission. "The truth is, the bodies are dead," he says. "That's not gonna change. We can't lose another person in the river."  Pham, an ultramarathon runner and former Eagle Scout, says he joined the group because "help is hard to come by."

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