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Linden mother of last U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam meets granddaughter for first time

By Angela Guillory aguillory@news-journal.com
Aug. 4, 2012 at 11 p.m.


LINDEN - Almost 40 years after the death of her son - the last American soldier killed in Vietnam - an East Texas woman finally met her granddaughter this past week.

Tia McConnell, the Asian-born daughter of John O'Neal Rucker, tracked down her father's family through DNA testing, driving across the country with her husband and children to meet them.

She said it was an emotional experience visiting Rucker's gravesite and placing a flag at the courthouse where a monument recognizes him as the last U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam.

Born March 17, 1951, in Kilgore, Rucker was raised in Linden. He was assigned to the 366 Combat Support Group, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, at Da Nang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.

On Jan. 27, 1973, at the age of 22, Rucker was killed in a rocket attack just hours before the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War.

His daughter was born an orphan in Da Nang. She was evacuated before the fall of Saigon and adopted and raised by Jack and Karen Whittier of Colorado.

But McConnell said she has always yearned to know her father and his family.

After many years of wondering, she attended the first reunion of Vietnamese adoptees, Operation Reunite in Ho Chi' Minh City, Vietnam in April 2010. There, organizers collected DNA samples and sent them to Family Tree DNA in Houston.

In 2011, McConnell got her results. But it took a year more of searching through databases to realize her father might not be alive.

Her search led her to the Vietnam Memorial website, where she could search by last name.

Not knowing the exact date of her birth, McConnell began searching by date of death based on approximately when she thought she was born.

She felt her father must have been alive past November 1972. Then, she entered the death dates listings from December 1972 through 1975. By process of elimination, she looked at every name, where the soldier was killed and the proximity of the location from where she was born.

Then she began looking for soldiers who came from the South, where the DNA tests indicated she should look.

"When I came upon O'Neal's name, before I clicked on the link to see where he was stationed, I began to cry," McConnell said. "When I saw he was in Da Nang and from Texas, I just knew."

McConnell said she went over every route, and they all led her to Linden.

Once she located Rucker's mother's phone number, she waited 10 hours before her husband convinced her to call. She made the first call Jan. 25, just two days before the anniversary of Rucker's death.

When she spoke to Rucker's mother, Mae Rucker, McConnell told her, "I am not trying to sell you anything."

"Good, I am not buying anything," Rucker said, laughing.

McConnell said, "I think I am your granddaughter."

"I have always had a feeling that someone was going to come along someday," Rucker said. "I just had that feeling."

But when McConnell and Rucker performed a DNA test, the results were negative.

McConnell said she was "just devastated," but the two continued to stay in touch.

After several months, her mother and Rucker persisted and convinced McConnell to have the test run a second time.

Rucker said she told her, "This means just as much to me as it does to you."

This time they submitted DNA from Rucker's sisters, Marsha and Margie, along with Mae Rucker's for a comparison.

On July 5, McConnell said she received the results, and it was a 91 percent match, "the best you can get with relatives not your parents."

She said she was so excited when she found out. As soon as she could get time off from work, McConnell said she came to visit.

McConnell said she was scared before she arrived. Before meeting her father's family, she was worried whether they would like her. But after meeting them she realized she had nothing to fear.

"They all were just wonderful. I couldn't ask for anything better," McConnell said.

"And, I have already told them I am not going to let them throw me back either," McConnell said, laughing.

"It is so special and so wonderful," McConnell said about finding her family. "I really would encourage people, especially with the amount of time that has passed since Vietnam, that if they think they might have fathered a child to find out, to put the pieces back together because time is short.

"I didn't get to know my dad, but I got to know him through all of (his family)."

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