By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In January 1986, during testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Smith acknowledged that he had heard Earl, Jr.'s name floated as a possible live prisoner, as late as 1981.
But, Smith added, "The problem that we run into with the names is that generally the frequency that you hear names is a lot of times generated by the amount of time and money that those individuals' families have put into attempting to find out whether or not their loved one is in fact held someplace in Southeast Asia."
* 1993. The Hoppers received word from the U.S. Air Force of a possible live sighting of Earl, Jr. in Thailand. No further details were available.
Hopper says, "I asked [Air Force personnel] about it two or three other times, but they had no information on it."
As 1968 turned into 1969, with no word on his son, dead or alive, Army Colonel Earl Hopper, Sr. grew increasingly frustrated.
"Although I was still on active duty, I was beginning to have my doubts about what the government was going to do," Hopper recalls. "Everything they were telling us families was, 'Be quiet. Don't say anything. Delicate negotiations are under way.' All of that, we learned eventually, were lies."
Hopper decided he'd been quiet long enough and that it was time he retired from the Army and begin to help organize other family members of Vietnam POW/MIAs. He was a founding member of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which incorporated in 1969. He served as state coordinator for Arizona families. In 1973, he joined the League's board of directors. In 1975, he served as executive director for a year, then went on to a six-year stint as chairman of the board.
Initially, the group's goal was to bring sick and injured POW/MIAs home. In the early days, Hopper recalls, the group got great support from the U.S. government. Where the Vietnamese saw American POWs as bargaining power, the U.S. government considered POW/MIA families an important propaganda tool.
The government actually set the League up with an office, five phone lines, and secretarial and legal assistance, Hopper says. In 1972, POW/MIA families were even invited to travel overseas with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to take part in negotiations. The family members were encouraged to speak out on TV talk shows and in their local newspapers.
Such support abruptly ended on April 1, 1973, the day the apparent last prisoners of war were released as part of President Richard Nixon's ballyhooed Operation Homecoming.
After Operation Homecoming, government support for the National League of Families evaporated. Returned POWs were told not to associate with League members, Hopper says. Many family members gave up hope. But the League geared up for action. That year, Hopper was elected to the League's board of directors.
The U.S. government had left behind more than 2,500 documented prisoners and others, like Earl, Jr., listed simply as missing in action. Up to that point, Hopper had held out hope that Nixon would follow through on his promise to bring the missing home--or at least account for them.
"But," Hopper now says, "within two weeks after the POWs came home, Nixon's announcement was that they were all dead, that there were no POWs left over there. That anyone who did not come home was dead."
In 1973, the U.S. government began sending letters to next of kin of the more than 2,000 still unaccounted for in Vietnam, changing their status from Missing in Action to Killed in Action. Once a POW/MIA was listed as KIA, back pay stopped accruing.
Hopper and a group of family members decided this series of unproven death certificates violated the POW/MIAs' civil rights. So in June 1973, 20 family members from Arizona and California met in Los Angeles to discuss a legal response. Dermot Foley, a well-known New York attorney, ended up representing the families in the resulting case, McDonald v. McLucas (McDonald was a POW/MIA family member; McLucas was the secretary of the U.S. Air Force). Once the lawsuit was filed, the judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting status changes until the case was resolved.
"It shook the Pentagon to the very foundation of their flagpole," Hopper says. "They didn't think these little innocent family members would rebel."
The litigation dragged on for years. Around Veterans Day 1976, the ruling came down: The government must hold a hearing to discuss the facts surrounding a possible status change, and either the man himself or next of kin must be present.
But that wasn't enough. The status review boards didn't change anything; every MIA was still changed to KIA. So in 1978, Hopper became the lead plaintiff in Hopper v. Carter, in which the POW/MIA families sued the federal government to try to force them to show cause--rather than just discuss the facts--before making a status change.
That case was unsuccessful, and in late 1979, the judge ruled that the government could resume status review board hearings.
The Air Force wasted no time in scheduling Earl, Jr.'s status review hearing--for February 7-9 at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Dermot Foley represented the Hopper family. The senior Hopper had a great deal to say. He reviewed the history of Earl, Jr.'s case for the board, including the beeper heard by multiple witnesses, and the 15-second interval response received days after the crash. He reminded the board of Keith Hall's interrogation. And he raised reasonable questions about whether his son went down in North Vietnam or Laos: