Longform

Missing Earl Jr.

Retired Army Colonel Earl Hopper, Sr. is a godfather of the Vietnam War POW/MIA activist movement in America.

The Glendale resident has served both as executive director and chairman of the board of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the country's largest, best-known POW/MIA organization. He was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government, in which POW/MIA families demanded the government prove their loved ones weren't alive before declaring them dead.

A career soldier and a veteran of three wars, Hopper rose to the rank of colonel with a chestful of medals, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, four Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.

Today, Earl Hopper, Sr. retains only one title: father. Hopper has spent the past 30 years looking for his son, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr., who disappeared January 10, 1968, after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam.

Along the way, Hopper, Sr. has followed an intriguing trail of clues that has never shaken his belief that his son survived the crash. He says he's discovered lies and cover-ups in the military establishment he served for three decades. He's also found community and even love through the movement.

From the beginning, Hopper has used expertise and connections developed during his years in the military--particularly a stint in Army intelligence--to push the POW/MIA issue forward when it had been stalemated. His efforts have earned him serious attention from people like Monika Jensen-Stevenson, a former 60 Minutes producer who features Hopper in her popular book on the POW/MIA movement, Kiss the Boys Goodbye. But more often, he's incurred the wrath of military brass who can't understand how one of their own could stray so far from the party line.

Earl Hopper, Sr. is in part responsible for the fact that since the early 1990s, 500 or more U.S. government employees--from military intelligence officers to anthropologists to DNA experts--have been working on figuring out what happened to the POW/MIAs. The government spends an estimated $55 million a year on such efforts. To date, remains of about 500 of the 2,587 POW/MIAs unaccounted for after the Vietnam War have been recovered.

Despite the tremendous expenditures, few outside the movement know about them. And after 30 years of mobilization, public awareness of POW activism itself has diminished. By now, AIDS activists have co-opted the bracelets once synonymous with the POW/MIA movement. Each year, fewer people show up for the National League of Families annual meeting. Some have lost hope; others have died. But, at 76, Earl Hopper, Sr. still helps run Task Force Omega, a national POW/MIA research group, out of his Glendale home. And after 30 years, headway has been made recently that may lead to the end of the hunt for Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr.

Earl Hopper, Sr. has a perfect attendance record at National League of Families meetings. This meeting is his 29th, held in June at a Washington, D.C., Marriott. He skips most of the scheduled sessions--he's heard the government double talk before, he says--preferring instead to man a booth where Task Force Omega is selling a catalogue of biographical information on POW/MIAs (More Than Merely Names, $20) that his research and life partner Patty Skelly has compiled.

The League meeting is like a family reunion. Hopper sits back and kibitzes with old friends--like Michael Clark, son of a POW/MIA, who got involved in the effort when he was 14; now he's 44. A POW/MIA wife from Georgia shows off her daughter's wedding pictures; everyone exchanges the last year's worth of news. She partakes in the gossip, but Skelly busily scurries around, setting up private meetings with the various government and military personnel assigned to come to the League meetings each year to face hundreds of family members--some more hostile than others--and try to answer their 30-year-old questions.

Unlike most of the participants, who are related to a POW or MIA, Skelly is of a unique breed here, the "concerned citizen." She joined the movement after learning a high school classmate was a POW/MIA, and has made it her full-time work since 1983. She and Hopper are inseparable. She calls herself a "research analyst" and has lived and worked in Hopper's home for the past 11 years. "Just tell anyone you see that you're looking for Patty and the Colonel," Skelly says, when setting up a meeting for cocktails in the lobby of the Washington Marriott, the site of the annual meeting.

Skelly works on dozens of cases, but her first priority is Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hopper, Jr. Skelly takes the elevator up to the Air Force Casualty suite to take a peek at Earl, Jr.'s official government file, although she has copies at home. Others, she says, have made a routine check and found that their loved one's military identification card--carried at all times by U.S. military personnel--unaccountably has appeared in their casualty file.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.