By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Hopper nods. Couldn't have said it better himself. Earl Hopper, Sr. and Patty Skelly may not have found Earl, Jr., but they found each other. They were married July 11.
Bowing to constant pressure from POW/MIA family members like Earl Hopper, Sr., presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton all vowed to make the unaccounted-for American troops in Southeast Asia a high priority.
Hopper and Skelly scoff at that. But they acknowledge some progress. In the early 1990s, two offices were established under the Department of Defense, to focus on recovery efforts, including tracking live sightings: the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office (DPMO).
In 1993, as U.S. relations with Vietnam improved, Vietnamese officials allowed the U.S. to begin investigating possible crash sites, where POW/MIAs like Earl, Jr. may have gone down.
Equipped with the general coordinates of where Earl, Jr.'s Phantom II was last seen, excavation teams surveyed two possible crash sites in 1993 and 1995, before finally locating one--in October 1995--that matched up with the data they had on Earl, Jr.
To date, Earl, Jr.'s possible site has been excavated four times. On any given mission, the U.S. government excavation team investigates about six crash sites at a time. Each mission costs about $1.5 million, estimates JTF-FA spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Roger King.
King says the feds have easily spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Earl Hopper, Jr.'s case. The first excavation team--12 Americans and 18 Vietnamese, including an anthropologist, medic and photographer--went into Earl, Jr.'s possible site in January 1997. They recovered "possible human bone fragments . . . and numerous pieces of life-support equipment, indicating that at least one individual was in the aircraft at the time of impact. During the excavation, the team also received some possible human bone fragments from [a] witness who has been farming the area since 1993," according to the team's official report. The bones were analyzed and found to be "non-human."
The team returned to the site in March 1997, recovering "possible human teeth, a possible human bone fragment, and possible glove fragments; one fragment had possible soft tissue adhering to the interior. The team also recovered numerous pieces of life-support equipment, cockpit-related items and aircraft wreckage." Further excavation was recommended, and resumed in November 1997, when the team found "three possible human teeth and several possible human bone fragments."
The last excavation concluded in March 1998 and yielded "several possible human bone fragments" and "no personal effects." The team found additional life-support and air-crew-related items, including: pieces of webbing, pieces of life raft material, an oxygen mask adjustment buckle, a life raft repair plug, various zipper teeth and one boot eyelet.
And the team recovered a small metal plate once riveted to an engine part stamped with the serial number from Earl, Jr.'s downed Phantom II.
Each time they get a new report on Earl, Jr.'s possible crash site, Hopper and Skelly pick it apart.
Skelly agrees that the terrain at the site matches up with what they already knew about Earl, Jr.'s case. But just because that's where the plane crashed doesn't mean Earl, Jr. died there. For years, the assumption had been that Earl, Jr. had ejected. Eyewitnesses reported seeing two objects leave the plane. Now, Skelly says, she believes Earl, Jr. might have ridden the plane in and walked away, because the pieces of the ejection seat were found at the site.
And the remains at the site, says Skelly, may be from animals. "They could be Asian bones. They may even prove out not to be bones at all," Skelly says. Sophisticated DNA testing can probably determine whether the bones are those of Earl, Jr. The best DNA testing, though, comes from teeth. But even if the couple of teeth found at the site are tested--and, in fact, are determined to be Earl, Jr.'s--that won't convince his father.
Those teeth, Skelly says, could have been knocked out in the crash, or placed at the site.
"Earl told them [the investigators] two years ago, 'Don't even try to pass off two teeth as the mortal remains of my son. Don't even think about it.'"
But what if analysis of the more remains eliminates any doubt that Earl, Jr. died at that site 30 years ago?
Hopper is quiet, smokes his pipe.
"The hardest thing to realize," Skelly says, "is that somebody is alive all these years, and what they've gone through all these years. It's much easier to think of somebody as dead, not in pain, not suffering all this length of time. And there's peace of mind. They're with their god.
". . . Then the question is, when did he die? And how? And you cry, you bury him, and you fight for the rest of them."
One day last June at the 29th annual National League of Families meeting, Patty Skelly and Earl Hopper, Sr. are sitting in the lobby bar at the Washington Marriott, sharing a plate of shrimp stir fry. Patty's got her shoes off.
A young woman passes, recognizes Earl and Patty, and stops to give Hopper a bear hug. She squats between the two to talk.