A memorial mission

I'm hurt. I need a medic.

Zwit recognized the voice. It belonged to Paul McKenzie, the only black lieutenant in the company, a guy who never put you in danger without standing next to you.

Zwit was big and blond in those days, a wrestler and a hockey player whose Chicago friends called him a Pollock even though his parents were of Slovakian and German stock. He'd also been called hyperactive. Outgoing. Life of the party.

Now he jumped over the protective log and darted up the trail.

From the brush, he heard Vietnamese chatter. Spying the entry to a camouflaged bunker, he walked over, aimed his gun into the hole and fired.

Forty years later, in his La Grange Park kitchen, he will close his eyes and squeeze his crossed arms tight across his scarred chest when he recounts how the bunker suddenly went quiet. He had never killed before.

Zwit lugged McKenzie over his right shoulder and was halfway down the trail when the second mad minute -- that's what the soldiers called the bursts of violence -- struck.

McKenzie died almost instantly, hurled to the ground, riddled with metal fragments and looking Jim Zwit in the eye.

Without the shield of McKenzie's body, Zwit may have been killed too. As it was, he was just bloodied and broken. When the rescue helicopter finally arrived, it couldn't land, so Zwit was reeled up, slamming from tree to tree as the chopper lurched to avoid gunfire from the ground.

This is how Zwit remembers it. Others who were there that night tell a similar story. There are a few hard documents that testify to what happened, like the handwritten military report for April 15, 1971, that noted Zwit's condition when he arrived at the hospital:

"Multiple frag wounds to chest ... Doctors do not believe he will live."

He lived.

He lost his right kidney, a piece of his liver and four ribs. He would spend the rest of his life with shrapnel in his abdomen. But he did what eight men he fought beside that night weren't allowed to do. He lived.

After a couple of years of surgeries, he got a job as a Chicago cop. He married, had two kids, divorced, remarried in 1987, would soon have two more kids. He left the police force to go into business as a process server who also did investigations for law firms.

And through it all, he kept thinking about the promise he'd made to Bob Hein.

Hein was one of the men who'd carried him over the log to safety the night of the firefight. In the hours before the rescue helicopter came, Hein dashed back repeatedly from the combat to bring Zwit water, until, at some point, he didn't come back.

Months earlier, the two had made a pact: If only one of us gets out, the survivor has to find the family of the other guy and tell them how it happened.

Somewhere between Vietnam and home, Zwit lost Hein's address, and in those days, it was hard to find people. There was no Internet, no Facebook, no email. War documents were classified. Nothing was digitized.

Zwit remembered Hein was from Sacramento, though, and once a friend visiting California ripped the "Hein" pages from the Sacramento phone book. Zwit called every one. No luck.

When he heard about a Sacramento TV anchor involved in a California memorial for Vietnam vets, he wrote and asked for help. The anchor sent his letter to the commission handling the memorial. One of the men on the commission was a vet and a property appraiser; he scoured property tax records. No luck.