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Uncharted Waters Thirty years after her father's plane was shot down over Southeast Asia, Rebecca Rusch will compete in the Raid Gauloises adventure race in Vietnam in the hope of learning more about a man she barely knew

March 18, 2002
March 18, 2002

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March 18, 2002

Si Adventure

Uncharted Waters Thirty years after her father's plane was shot down over Southeast Asia, Rebecca Rusch will compete in the Raid Gauloises adventure race in Vietnam in the hope of learning more about a man she barely knew

In the dream her father walked into a coffee shop and sat down
next to her. They began to talk. She told him everything he had
missed since his plane was shot down over Laos on March 7, 1972.
She mentioned how, like him, she was a musician, playing the
flute in the school band and the piano on the side. How she had
found an outlet for her energy on the track and cross-country
teams. How much fun she had camping and skiing with her sister.
How much she loved the outdoors. "I wanted him to know how I had
turned out," she says.

This is an article from the March 18, 2002 issue

Rebecca Rusch had that dream throughout high school, but she
doesn't have it anymore. Any hope of teaching her father about
her is gone. But she can still learn about him.

When the organizers of the Raid Gauloises adventure race
announced that their 2002 competition would be held in Vietnam
this April, the 33-year-old Rusch, one of the world's top female
adventure racers, knew she had to go. She knew she might never
get another chance to travel through the same jungle her father,
Stephen Rusch, might have traversed as an Air Force captain
during his tour in Southeast Asia 30 years ago. First, however,
she had to overcome her revulsion to the jungle and all that
issues from it--the infection, the heat rash, the foot rot, "the
nasty plant life and disgusting water" and, more than anything,
the leeches and stinging, crawling insects that turned the 2000
Eco-Challenge in the Borneo jungle into one endless episode of
Fear Factor. "After that race I swore I'd never do another
jungle race," says Rusch, "but Patrick [Harper, her teammate and
boyfriend] has talked me into the idea that there will be no
leeches."

Next, she began to do research on her father, who vanished from
her life when she was three and a half years old. Most of what
she learned about him as a child came from her grandmother, who
would often cry when she spoke of her son. "I stopped asking
questions because I didn't want to upset anyone," says Rusch.

Preparing for the Vietnam race inspired her to again start
asking questions about her father. In addition to addressing her
grueling workout schedule and the usual fund-raising and
organizational responsibilities of an adventure racing team
captain, she has read Vietnam War histories and personal
memoirs, such as Dieter Dengler's Escape from Laos. She has
written to cousins, aunts, uncles, her sister and her mother,
Judy, asking them to share their memories of her dad. "I'm
curious about him, about me," she says. "My sister and I grew up
in the same environment, but we're totally different. That has
to come from somewhere."

Her sister, Sharon Bannister, has been conducting her own
intensive search for Steve since she joined the Air Force as a
commissioned officer following her graduation from dental school
in 1992. In her 10 years as an Air Force dentist, she has run
into four or five people who knew her dad, including a general
who thought she looked familiar and told her, after
introductions, that he remembered seeing pictures of her when she
was six years old. "Everyone has said my dad was a great officer
and that he really believed in what he was doing," says
Bannister, 36, who is a major. "That's important to me. He was
willing to do anything for anybody."

Rebecca also savors the details she has pieced together about her
father. He was a gifted musician, a free spirit with a wanderlust
much like her own. In the spring of 1964 he traded in the '52
MGTD convertible Judy adored for a converted telephone truck that
took him all over the West. He kept a diary of that trip, which
Judy has recently copied for her. "He sounds great, doesn't he?"
says Rebecca. "He loved to travel; he didn't know where he was
going to live next. My mom tells me my nomadic instinct comes
from him."

Rusch moves from one short-term rental to the next, most of her
belongings stashed in the orange-and-white '75 Bronco she calls
Betty. After rebuilding everything but the transmission several
years ago, she added some homey touches inside: plastic flowers,
a picture of her best friend and one of her niece clipped to the
sun visor, and a ganglion of beads, key chains and
bracelets--including her dad's MIA bracelet, a steel band with
Stephen's information on it--that hangs from the rearview mirror.
The only "furniture" she owns is a folding chair and and a
Therm-A-Rest mat. "My truck is the only stationary thing in my
life," she says.

She'll soon push out of Bend, Ore., where she spent the winter
helping Harper coach a youth Nordic ski team, and will eventually
resettle--if that's the word--in Sun Valley for a summer of river
guiding and other odd jobs that, added to the few thousand bucks
a year she makes adventure racing, allow her to maintain her
spartan existence. "The adventure-race lifestyle is addictive,"
she says. "I love traveling, I love breaking confidence barriers.
I'm always learning something new about myself."

This is what else she has learned about Stephen Rusch before
even stepping foot in Vietnam: He met Judy Tomlinson in the fall
of '63 at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where both were
majoring in math. Rusch was a folk guitarist and songwriter who
made extra cash singing protest songs, union songs and dust bowl
ballads in coffee houses in North Jersey and Manhattan's
Greenwich Village, where he and Judy occasionally rubbed elbows
with his heroes Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and
Reverend Gary Davis.

After his junior year Steve dropped out of school, got a job
working in electronics for RCA and got engaged to Judy. Though
he was conflicted about the war, recalls Judy, he felt a strong
sense of duty to his country. When his birthday turned up a low
number in the 1964 draft lottery, Steve enlisted in the Air
Force for a four-year commitment and liked it so much he would
re-enlist in early 1969, shortly after the birth of Rebecca and
around the time he and Judy divorced amicably. Steve visited the
girls several times before he left for Vietnam, in July 1971,
and sent letters and postcards once he got there, the last ones
dated March 6, 1972.

On March 7, Steve was navigating in the second of two F-4
Phantoms flying an early-morning reconnaissance mission over the
Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. According to Air Force
reports, the lead plane spotted two enemy trucks, and Steve's
plane strafed them. On the second pass the lead aircraft saw
enemy gunfire followed by an explosion in the air and then a
larger explosion--which turned out to be Steve's plane--on the
ground. No parachutes were spotted, but it was hazy and
visibility was poor. With no hard evidence of Steve's fate, the
Air Force listed him as MIA. He was 28 years old.

Devastated, Judy waited a few days before telling her daughters
the news, hoping she might hear something definitive in the
meantime. "Telling them was so hard," she says. "Sharon asked
questions, but Rebecca didn't have a clue. Later on, we'd search
returning POW lists, but there was never news of Steve."

The Air Force continued to conduct reconnaissance flights over
the crash site in search of Steve, with negative results. In July
1978 Steve's status was changed from MIA to KIA, or presumed
dead. The family held a memorial service in Princeton, where the
girls were presented with flags and their father's service
medals, including a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple
Heart. Rebecca was nine at the time. "I remember sitting in the
front row, not understanding what was going on, not understanding
about the war, not having a real personal sense of loss," she
says. "I thought it was so weird that they had pronounced him
dead right then. I thought, Why now?"

Rusch got into adventure racing almost by accident, having
graduated in the top 10 from the University of Illinois's
undergraduate business program but finding her interest lay
outdoors. An accomplished paddler and rock climber, she had
signed up for an adventure-race camp in 1996 and decided she
enjoyed the experience but not enough to do it again. Then
someone else asked her to fill a woman's spot at the '97
Eco-Challenge qualifier, which her team won. "This sport just
fell in my lap," she says. "That's the advantage of getting
involved in a sport's infancy."

Rusch has been adventure racing for six years, which makes her a
grizzled veteran by the sport's standards. She has competed in
five Ecos, the Southern Traverse 2000 in New Zealand, the 2000
Raid in Tibet and the 2001 Discovery World Championships in
Switzerland, as well as several smaller races, finishing in the
top 10 in almost every event. Along the way she has developed a
reputation as a goatlike trekker, a superb paddler and climber
and a perpetually organized, supportive and good-humored
teammate. "Reba [as she is called by her friends] doesn't have a
bad moment during a race," says Jacques Boutet, who raced with
Rusch early in her career. "And unlike a lot of woman racers,
who feel their job is just to keep on their feet, Reba has her
head in the game. She is not just one of the top female racers
out there, she is flat-out one of the best all-around racers of
either sex."

Rusch has learned through experience that the teammates she works
best with are the kind who, interestingly enough, have some of
her father's qualities, primarily sensitivity and selflessness.
"I like to race with sensitive girlie men who are physically
studly," she says. "You know, the kind who are nice to their
girlfriends."

For the Vietnam race Rusch has assembled what might be her
strongest team yet. Racing as Team Parallax, Rusch, Harper, John
Jacoby, Tony Molina and Novak Thompson have a genuine shot at
what could be Rusch's first victory in a major expedition-length
race. That, however, is not her primary reason for making the
7,000-mile trip to Southeast Asia. "Of course, we want to do
well," she says, "but the race is kind of secondary for me. I
have a different motivation this time."

After the race, whenever and wherever it ends (the course is top
secret and the only information the racers have at this point is
that they must arrive in Hanoi and should expect to paddle, trek,
mountain bike and climb over some 450 miles of mountain forest,
lowland swamps and, of course, jungle), Rebecca and Judy plan to
hire a driver and visit some of the places that made up Steve's
world in Vietnam, including Danang, where he was stationed, and
China Beach, where soldiers typically went on weekend passes. If
time, distance and the usual postrace recovery process allow,
Rusch would like to get as close as she can to Steve's still
unexcavated crash site 22 miles northeast of Saravane, Laos.

"I don't know how I'll react being over there," says Rebecca.
"When I visited the Vietnam Memorial a few Christmases ago, I was
surprised by what a powerful experience it was. My dad's name was
one of the last on the wall, because he was shot down so late in
the war. I didn't expect to cry, but I did.

"I don't have a lot of hope he's still alive. But by doing this
trip, I'm getting to know him through the memories of the people
who did know him and by being in the places he spent time. All
this information I'm gathering is painting a picture of him for
me."

She'll never be able to do the same for him, of course, but she
can be fairly certain of one thing: He'd be proud of how she
turned out.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY COREY RICH Dampened spirits The leech-infested waters of the 2000 Eco in Borneo caused Rusch to question whether she'd ever enter another jungle race.COLOR PHOTO: ROBBIE MCCLARAN/SABA Higher purpose Despite her rapid ascent as an adventure racer, a Raid win is not Rusch's main goal.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN KELLY Wanderlust Life is a movable feast for Rusch, who, along with four-wheeled Betty, shares her father's taste for the nomadic life.
"I don't have a lot of hope my father is still alive. All this
information I'm gathering is painting a picture of him."
"I like to race with sensitive girlie men who are physically
studly. You know, the kind who are nice to their girlfriends."