Final Battle: A Daughter's Journey

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - In May 2011, I profiled four veterans in Poplar Bluff who died within weeks of each other, all secluded from family and living in squalor.

One of those men had no family to claim him, until now.

Back in December, I got an email from Jennifer Gale-Fisher of Carterville.

She had just learned that I profiled her father, Robert Rogers in that report.

Jennifer invited me to go down to Poplar Bluff with her and her husband Jason to learn more about her dad's life, his death, and his service to our country.

"Until now, it wasn' was more like a dream. It wasn't real," Gale-Fisher tells me.

She's trying to accept the harsh reality that the father she kept looking for "on and off for 17 years" as she tells me, lived and died just 123 miles away.

Nearly a year after Army helicopter technician Robert Rogers died alone in a Poplar Bluff hotel room, his daughter is in Poplar Bluff looking for answers.

"I really wanted to meet Jim, because he went above and beyond," Fisher says referring to Butler County Coroner Jim Akers.

Akers made sure Rogers was buried with full military honors.

But for Jennifer, Akers also holds the less than honorable details of her father's final moments.

"Death due to alcoholism and post traumatic stress syndrome," Akers tells Jennifer and her husband Jason, showing them photographs he took inside Rogers' filthy hotel room.

The photos show Rogers lying on the bed, surrounded by beer cans and other trash.

"We know he'd been in Vietnam. And we know he'd been exposed to Agent Orange," Akers says.

Back when Rogers died in February of 2011, Akers found a high school photograph of Jennifer among her dad's meager belongings and tried in vain to track her down.

"I even talked to the VA, saying I had this information," Akers recalls.

And at least one branch of the Veterans Administration had Jennifer's information.

She received a benefits letter in December bearing a claim date of February 16, 2011. That's the day her father died. She just didn't know it.

"At first, I was angry," Jim Akers says, "thinking well if they had that information why didn't I get it?"

It took Fisher one last Google search after receiving that letter to finally find her father, through his obituary.

"I went online and typed in his name. And it was so easy, after he was gone," she tells me.

At the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center where Robert Rogers received services, we hear a sad but simple explanation.

"By law, we're prohibited from releasing information to outside parties that the veteran has not identified as next of kin," Michael Dobbs explains.

Dobbs and fellow veteran Jim Todd both tell me it's not uncommon to find men like Robert Rogers estranged from their family and living alone.

"It's really unfortunate that our veterans choose to take care of themselves and be on their own," Dobbs says.

"I'm very proud of Jennifer," Todd adds. "That she has taken the steps to find out about her dad and find out about the great service he provided for our nation."

While in Poplar Bluff, Jennifer and her husband met with Veterans Service Officer Ray AuBuchon, who tells her he can help piece together her dad's entire military career, including all his medals. She also learns Rogers sat in AuBuchon's office back in 2003, applying to receive the purple heart he earned after being injured in Vietnam.

Fisher also finds out her dad did not spend all his time alone. He came to the Neighborhood Bar nearly every day. Jennifer and Jason go inside to see if anyone there remembers her father.

Inside, she finds a tight knit group with many fond memories of the man they knew as Bob.

"He was a good guy," Floyd Redding tells me. "He did the country a great service."

"He was just very nice," adds Marsha Johnson. "He was a classy man, always tried to keep up with the style."

That memory brings a smile to Jennifer's face.

"It was refreshing, you know, to hear other people call him a classy man and that he was polite and well-mannered. And you know, that's the way I remember him," she tells me after we step outside.

Jennifer Gale-Fisher's journey ends at her father's final resting place, the Veterans Cemetery at Bloomfield.

Because strangers cared enough to honor Robert Rogers, this can now be a place of peace for father and child.

"I don't think that I would have gotten here without you, without Jim, without Ray. I wouldn't have because I wouldn't have known where to look, where to search," she tells me. "All the pieces have just fallen together perfectly."

Jennifer's planning to display her father's medals, a tribute she can share with her two young sons as they get older.

Leaders with the VA Medical Center in Bluff say they hope her story causes veterans to reach out to family, and to the VA for services, before it's too late.

Copyright 2012 KFVS. All rights reserved.