John Whitaker
A pencil rubbing from the Vietnam Memorial shows a single name: John S. Pinney.

I'm more interested in the stories of family history than in the genealogical data, but the data are often a good starting point for exploring the stories.

I recently began writing a biography of an old soldier I know. His adventures spanned four decades, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. In February 1969, he was on patrol with an infantry unit in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam. He had a good friend in the unit, an exceptional sergeant who was widely admired as a soldier and as a person. The unit was ambushed, and his friend was fatally wounded as he attempted to save a comrade who was shot while returning from an outpost.

I had heard this retired soldier tell the story several times before, but I needed documentation. I was in the same position as someone wanting to research his own ancestors, but struggling to get enough of a foothold to begin.

My soldier friend had forgotten how to spell the hero's last name, so we guessed. I searched in numerous databases for Sgt. John Penney, but didn't find him. I tried every variation I could imagine. Penny? Penney? Pennie? Pene? Penne? I tried looking for every soldier named "John" on the Vietnam Memorial, but that's such a tedious approach that it's easy to miss something, which I did.

I needed a clue. Sometimes that's all we need in our genealogy research: one more clue.

In one of our Sunday afternoon interviews, I thought I heard my soldier friend pronounce the name differently. This time the first syllable sounded more like "pin" than "pen." I interrupted and asked, "Is it possible that his name starts with p-i-n, not p-e-n?" He thought it was possible.

Later, I logged into (where I work) and ran some more searches. Changing the vowel made all the difference. His last name was Pinney. I found him in the Vietnam Memorial Index, which gave me not only the location of his name on the Vietnam Memorial, but also his birth and death dates in 1942 and 1969; his middle name, Scott; his hometown, China Lake, Calif.; and other interesting information. Some of what the record said I already knew.

"Casualty type: hostile, died"

"Casualty reason: gun, small arms fire"

"Casualty country: South Vietnam"

"Casualty province: Tay Ninh"

Moments later, I found him in a U.S. database of Vietnam casualties, which added a few details:

"Religion: Protestant"

"Marital status: married"

"Body recovered: body recovered"

I added his death year to my FamilyLink search and tried again. This time I found a slightly blurry photo of a smiling soldier who could have been on a recruiting poster. I learned that he served with Company C, 12th Calvary, First Cavalry Division, and that he is buried in Desert Memorial Park in Ridgecrest, Calif. Finding the photo alone made me want to cheer or weep, or both. Eventually, his unit information will allow me to look up unit records and learn more.

For curiosity's sake, I looked in the Social Security Death Index, a common starting point for finding Americans who died anytime after 1940. He wasn't there, but not everyone is. I found nothing relevant in our large newspaper collection, so I decided it was time to google.

A Google image search led me to the same photo I had just found. This time it was at a Web page with dozens of photographs from his unit, titled "Photographs of Vietnam 2/12 Cavalry Company C." Another photo shows Sgt. John Pinney crossing a narrow bridge on a bicycle.

I also found a Sgt. John Pinney Memorial Pool in California and some short remembrances from people who knew him before and during his Army service. These confirmed what my soldier friend had often said: People don't come much better than John Pinney.

Then I logged into Facebook. It wasn't 48 hours before I had found and contacted Pinney's son and grandson. The family confirmed what I suspected from the remembrances I had found: The story of John Pinney's heroism was mostly unknown to his family and friends. I've since shared the story with the family; it's the sort of story a family — especially a son — should hear. But before I did that, I did something else.

I found these records a few days before Pinney's birthday in early May. I decided that telling my soldier friend of the discovery could wait those few days. Meanwhile, I put the photos and memories I had found into a two-page document and printed it in color. On my way to work on the morning of Pinney's birthday, I stopped by a local grocery store for a piece of birthday cake. With it and the document, I was ready to knock on my soldier friend's door.

I think I woke him; he was a bit groggy when he answered the door. I said, "Good morning! Do you know what today is?"

He stared and shook his head.

"I found John Pinney this week," I said, "and today's his birthday. Happy John Pinney's birthday!" I handed him the cake and the document, and told him I had to hurry to the office.

My friend is a tough, macho Special Forces guy, so I'll respectfully omit what I saw in his face before I hopped down from his front porch and zoomed off to work.

There are great stories behind the names, dates and places in our genealogy, stories that can make a difference in the lives of the living. But perhaps a better moral for my tale is that patience and persistence sometimes really can lead to that one elusive record, which leads to the next record, which leads to the next. Suddenly, there's a cascade of information, where an hour or two before (and after weeks or months of searching) there was none.

There's still more to do. Veterans tell me that if John Pinney's story can be properly documented, he might be awarded a well-deserved, posthumous Bronze Star for valor, or maybe even a Silver Star.

It seems like a worthy cause. No doubt, I'll be learning a lot more about military records on the way.

David Rodeback manages content production and online marketing for in Provo, Utah, and blogs in his spare time.