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Family meets daughter of last American soldier killed in Vietnam

Aug. 4, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Last week, the Rucker family met the daughter of John O'Neal Rucker for the first time.

Rucker, of Linden, was the last American soldier killed in Vietnam.

Thursday, Rucker's mother, Mae Rucker, met Tia McConnell and her husband Allan and their two sons, Matthew and Quentin, from Denver, Colo.

McConnell located her father's family through DNA testing.

McConnell drove with her family to Kilgore where she first met her father's sister, her aunt, Marsha, and her grandmother, Mae.

On Friday, in the rain, family members traveled to Center Hill Community Cemetery where McConnell saw her father's grave for the first time.

She said it was a very emotional experience.

From there, four cars carrying family members continued to downtown Linden to the courthouse square where McConnell, with teary eyes, placed a flag at the Veterans Memorial.

A monument erected there recognizes Rucker as the last soldier killed in Vietnam.

Rucker was born March 17, 1951, in Kilgore, and was raised in Linden.

He was assigned to the 366 Combat Support Group, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, at DaNang Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. He was killed in a rocket attack Jan. 27, 1973, just hours before the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War.

Sergeant Rucker is buried in the Center Hill Community Cemetery, six miles east of Linden on FM 1841.

Before returning to Colorado on Sunday, McConnell spent the weekend visiting with family in the area she never knew she had.

For years, McConnell, an orphan born prematurely in Da Nang, Vietnam, who was evacuated before the fall of Saigon and later adopted by her parents Karen and Jack Whittier in Colorado, said she has always felt there was someone out there.

"I just have always known," she said emotionally.

After many years of wondering who her father was, she attended the first reunion of Vietnamese adoptees, Operation Reunite, in Ho Chi' Minh City, Vietnam, in April 2010, with her husband.

While there, organizer Trista Goldberg, who started the Operation Reunite organization, collected DNA samples and sent them to "Family Tree DNA" in Houston.

"Family Tree DNA is becoming really popular for people who are into genealogy," McConnell explained.

McConnell said she sent her DNA in but waited until August 2011 before she paid to get the results.

She found matches with lots of people but none were closer than a fourth cousin. Then, in November 2011, she was matched with a man named Emmett Hall, as a second cousin, from Houston.

His wife, Cary, works for a genealogy library in Houston.

She provided McConnell with a long list of surnames associated with Hall.

Also, McConnell said the DNA showed all of her closest matches had deep connections to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

McConnell said she started searching based on the list of last names. Her search began with something tangible, such as, "a person who is alive."

"I think I needed to believe he had to be alive," she said.

After encountering many road blocks, McConnell said she came to her senses and realized her father may be dead.

Her search led her to the Vietnam Memorial Web site where she could search by last names.

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.

"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 DaNang and from Texas, I just knew."

McConnell said she went over every route she could possibly go over 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, 2012, just two days before the anniversary of Rucker's death.

When she spoke to Mae she said, "I am not trying to sell you anything."

"Good, I am not buying anything," Mae said, while laughing.

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

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

When McConnell did the first test against Mae's DNA, it came back negative.

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

After several months, her mother and Mae persisted and convinced McConnell to have the test run again.

Mae 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 his mother Mae'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 worry about.

"They all were just wonderful. I couldn't ask for anything better," McConnell said with a smile as she fondly looked at her grandmother.

"She's a keeper," Mae responded.

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

McConnell said she is blessed that she has parents who are so supportive.

She said visiting the cemetery was very emotional. She asked her husband if he thought her father would have loved her and he responded by saying, "Why would you even say that? Look around you. Of course he would."

McConnell, a registered nurse, said there are so many similarities between her family and the family who raised her.

The one thing she said she's learned through all of this is that children who are adopted, for some reason, she doesn't know why, always want to know who their birth mother is.

For her, she always wanted to know who her father was.

"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 them," McConnell said emotionally, as she waved her hand across the room.

She plans to return Labor Day for Mae's Dulaney family reunion in Caledonia, Ark., where Mae said there should be approximately 150 relatives in attendance.



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