Greensboro News & Record
Saturday, August 4, 2001
KEEPING FAITH, KEEPING HOPE FAMILIES, FRIENDS BELIEVE SOME MISSING
ARE STILL ALIVE
ALLISON PERKINS Staff Writer
Sara Gist-Bernasconi knows her husband is alive.
The pilot he was flying with in a two-seater F-4 reconnaissance
he saw Tommy E. Gist eject safely over Dong Hoi, North
Vietnam, on May 18, 1968. In 1985, Vietnamese officials sent his
identification card to the United States, with the explanation that
his body had burned in that crash.
Gist-Bernasconi knows he always carried his I.D. in his pocket,
did it survive unscathed?
"It leaves me continuing to press for answers," said Gist-
Albuquerque, N.M. "It leaves me with the feeling the
Vietnamese government has answers. It leaves me to believe my own
has more answers than I've been told."
Gist-Bernasconi is not alone in her search for answers.
This week, hundreds of Vietnam veterans have gathered in
the 10th biannual convention of the Vietnam Veterans
of America Inc. Many in the organization believe there are
being held as prisoners of war in southeast Asia.
Early Friday morning, the group held a candlelight ceremony to
fallen comrades: those whose remains have been recovered and
finally returned home; and those who are still missing.
"As we gather here we are reminded of the tremendous pain war
our bodies, our minds, our spirit," said Father Phillip Salois,
chaplain of the VVA. "There is a group of people today who have a
pain - the families of those who never
"What kind of indignities have been perpetrated on them? Where
remains? Do they even remember they have a family who loves
them and longs for their return?"
A list of 50 service members who remain missing, one from each
read during the ceremony. Officially, the whereabouts are
unknown of about 2,000 people, from all branches of service and the
sector, who served in Vietnam.
Patty Hopper of Glendale, Ariz., says it is possible hundreds of
that list may still be alive.
Hopper created Task Force Omega Inc. in 1983 with her husband,
Sr., a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and
two other veterans, to help bring the POW/MIA issue to the
attention of the
Their son, Earl Hopper Jr., was believed taken prisoner after his
aircraft was downed by North Vietnamese troops. Hopper and the
pilot both ejected safely. The pilot was returned to the U.S. from
prisoner camp in 1973. Hopper remained missing and, in 1982, was
determined to be no longer living by the U.S. government, his
But the family has documentation, provided by former intelligence
officials, indicating that Hopper was still alive as recently as
1984, that there had been a failed CIA mission to extract the young
when his plane first crashed.
"It isn't a matter of 'Are there people alive?' " Hopper said.
matter of 'Who are they? How many are there? And what is it
going to take to get them out?'
"This isn't a game," she said. "These are living, breathing
lives didn't just end. I have seen nothing that
indicates he is not still surviving."
There are continual searches for remains of American service
throughout southeast Asia. Joint Task Force-Full Accounting
investigates information about possible crash sites in the area and
recommends dig sites to the Army's Central Identification
Laboratory. Both are based in Hawaii.
CIL-HI, which searches for remains from all wars, makes several
around the world to painstakingly dig for bits of bone, metal,
fabric or anything they can find. The items are then brought to
their lab in
Hawaii, and DNA tests are used to determine whose remains they
On the other side of the equation, the Veterans Initiative of the
helps repatriate objects Americans took as war trophies from
enemy soldiers to Vietnamese families and find burial sites of
"We felt this was the right thing to do," said William Duker of
former chair of Veterans Initiative. "Regardless of what
side you were on, you should know what happened to your loved one."
As more American troops came forward with information, so did
troops. One elderly man, dying of cancer in a hospital,
even offered to take American officials to the site of a plane
had spent years searching for, Duker said.
Duker, who has been on several trips to Vietnam to help search
remains, said most of the Vietnamese enjoy reuniting with
"It's been a really rewarding experience," he said. "There's
negative about it. And most of us realized even then that the
majority of the Vietnamese people were just caught in the middle."
Though he's hesitant to say troops definitely remain alive and
Duker said he has not given up hope.
"I'd like to think there's someone out there who would like to
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