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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13 comments
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Henxinsand

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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.

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.

Marie
Marie

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

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.

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.

 
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