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Earl: "And I'm gonna kick his ass all the way from Phoenix to Tallahassee!"
Patty: "I get the return trip!"
Earl: "I'll tell you this. He'll be a multimillionaire."
Patty: "Just in back pay and interest."
--a recent exchange between Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly
Since the late '80s, the national nonprofit research group Task Force Omega has operated out of Earl Hopper, Sr.'s Glendale home, headed by Hopper and Skelly. The organization has active chapters in about 20 states, with members who contribute research to Hopper and Skelly. The group's $50,000 annual budget comes from proceeds from sales of tee shirts, caps, stickers and POW/MIA bracelets and a few donations--mostly donations from Hopper and Skelly themselves, they say.
The organization runs on a shoestring, but over the years, Hopper and Skelly have managed to untangle a lot of government red tape, and advocate on behalf of family members who don't know the system as well as they do, like Pat Plumadore, whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Kenneth Plumadore, was never accounted for after a bloody battle in South Vietnam.
The goal of Task Force Omega is to put all the scraps of information offered up by different agencies together, and examine them for patterns, clues as to where a POW/MIA might be.
"We can do what the government cannot do," Skelly says. "The government agencies--each agency--has its own information base and its own structure. They're very compartmented. One agency may have information that would help another agency, but they don't talk to each other. They don't compare notes and they don't share information."
Government spokesmen won't discuss individual cases, but Judy Leiby--a former veterans affairs aide to retired Arizona U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini who worked with Hopper and Skelly for years--confirms that Task Force Omega has been of tremendous assistance to the cause.
Skelly continues, "We can tell you more--and faster and easier--than what the government can. Defense Intelligence Agency doesn't have the biographic information that the casualty offices have. Air Force Casualty has only information on the Air Force missing men. Army, only on the Army."
Hopper would rather discuss the information they don't have than the information they do. The government says it releases all available documents to next of kin, but Hopper disputes that.
"They've got information that they will not release," he insists. He shakes his head, disgusted.
Still, Task Force Omega has gathered some intelligence reports on live sightings. "Every once in a while, we'll get something. Maybe a brown envelope will turn up in your mailbox with no return address and a gold nugget," Skelly says. "That doesn't happen very often."
The Task Force Omega office gives away the disparate styles of Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly.
The Hopper side's a little dusty, with boxes of yellowing files piled every which way and a small wood plaque on the wall: "God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts." Alongside that plaque are Earl, Jr.'s diploma from the Air Force Academy (Class of '65) and a rubbing of his name from the Vietnam War memorial, a.k.a. The Wall (Line 20, Panel 34E). Hopper's shotgun leans in a corner; he also hunts birds.
Skelly's side is more up to date, down to the PMS cartoons on the bulletin board. She's Yber-organized, with a fax machine, turbo copy machine, rows of file cabinets and two computers. Skelly estimates her database holds about 75 percent of all available data--not counting intelligence reports--on a total of 3,800 Vietnam-era servicemen: the 2,087 unaccounted-for POW/MIAs, returned POWs and other men Skelly says the government refuses to acknowledge as missing.
Hopper and Skelly are not content building a database. They want to put it to use. The goal of Task Force Omega is to get Americans out of Southeast Asia.
"Now we have a system that we can put into effect on short notice to evacuate any live POWs we can get our hands on," Hopper says, sounding a bit like a character in a Tom Clancy novel.
Every now and then, he says, word of live prisoners comes out of Southeast Asia. Some want money to ensure the return. Hopper and Skelly finish one another's sentences, excited to tell the story.
Hopper: "So we tell them, tell these people, 'Treat this like a business deal. You, the Oriental,'" he says, betraying no sense of '90s PC, "'invest three thousand dollars--'"
Skelly: "--or whatever it takes--"
Hopper: "'--to go in and get that POW and bring him out. You bring him out, and if he's an authentic, documented prisoner of war, I'll guarantee you $1 million. . . .' That's a pretty good profit. None of 'em have done it yet."
Skelly: "A lot of this stuff is going on like that, but you've got to be very, very careful." Sometimes, Skelly catches a bit of The X-Files' Agent Mulder in her speech.
"Why is there an element in our government that does not want live guys to come out?" she asks. "Very succinctly, this issue touches the last six administrations--five of the presidents, including the sitting president, are still alive. Both major political parties. All their administrations, all their secretaries of the Navy, Defense, etc. When a live prisoner of war walks up to a president and says, 'What took you so long? John Doe was alive five years ago. Harry Smith was alive a year ago. Somebody else died last month,' this country is going to erupt."