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UWM Students Help Dad Track Down Photos of Fallen Vietnam War Soldiers

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Willie Bedford's photo completes Wisconsin's collection of fallen Vietman soldiers

UPDATE: A photo of Willie Bedford has been found and confirmed. It means Wisconsin has obtained photographs of all its 1,161 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.

Searchers had hoped to find all of them by Memorial Day, but Bedford remained particularly elusive. He attended high school in MPS, and perhaps the stumbling block was that his high school yearbook listed him as B. Bedford.

Andrew Johnson, owner and publisher of the Dodge County Pioneer Newspaper started the search, after his son passed away fighting in Afghanistan in 2012. He was an Army captain.

"We need to recognize the great price that was paid; we can never waste that. My son would want me to live a full life. He'd want me to do something with my life," Johnson told students.

So Johnson teamed up with the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund, which wants to locate pictures of all 58,000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam war and the 8,000 U.S. soldiers who have died since 9/11. The photos will live at the education center that will break ground in 2016, next to the Vietnam War Memorial. The center will display the photos of fallen soldiers, on their birthdays.

When Johnson had found all but 60 photos of the Wisconsin soldiers who died in Vietnam, several UWM students joined in his search.

Journalism major Rachel Maidl set out to find photographs of two, including Willie Bedford. She learned about the end of his life in Vietnam, when he was 19 years old.

"He was stationed at this dam and there was an accident and he was swept away very quickly and no one could do anything about it. He was in Vietnam for a couple months.

"Starting off, I only knew the information about how he died, and we’re talking about someone who died 45 years ago. This is way before the internet existed. In most cases they had never gotten married, they didn’t have children, they never bought a home, they didn’t go to college. So many records these men don’t have because they never got the chance to do. It's really sad that their paper trail is so short," Maidl said.

Maidl finally located Bedford's brother on Facebook, and learned that the 19-year-old had a sister, but neither had a photo of Willie.

"They don’t know any family members who have pictures, they don’t have any pictures themselves. It’s really sad that they haven’t been able to look at their brother’s face," Maidl said.

Fellow UWM student Tyler Nelson says the search has included making multiple visits to high schools and paging through old yearbooks. He says, another challenge, besides the fact that many young, fallen Vietnam War soldiers did not leave much of a paper trail, is the fact that many of their remaining relatives no longer have land lines, so their phone numbers are unlisted.

Yet Nelson says the process has given the students time to appreciate the sacrifice the young soldiers made.

"They were our age - or younger, and were involved in something much larger than they knew. They had nothing to do with it but paid the ultimate price," Nelson said.

(If you knew Willie Bedford, you can contact: findingwillie@gmail.com.)