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Local MIA's daughter waits for proof of father's death

By Trina Trice

Two days after her eighth birthday, Amy Berkes found out that she'd never see her father again.

Berkes' father, Air Force Col. William E. Cooper of the 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, was leading a bombing mission over North Vietnam in 1966 when his plane was shot down.

Sadly, Cooper had only two more missions to fly before he could have returned home to his family.

No one could tell Berkes, her three brothers and sister, nor her mother what happened to Cooper after his plane crashed near Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam

There was no attempt or opportunity to rescue Cooper, as U.S. soldiers recently did in Iraq with the rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital.

Instead, Cooper was considered MIA.

Berkes will soon turn 45 and although 36 years have passed, she remembers the day her family found out Cooper's plane was shot down.

The family lived in Wichita, Kan., near McConnell Air Force Base. Cooper was a career military man and commander of fighter squadrons in Vietnam. Because of his status, his wife Thelma often accompanied a chaplain to deliver bad news to families of soldiers in Cooper's squadron.

When a big black car pulled in front of her house on April 24, 1966, Thelma Cooper knew it had come for another reason.

"We had a big picture window in our house," Berkes said. "My mom saw" the black car "right away and she just knew?she collapsed."

"We couldn't have a funeral ?cause he was missing. We still haven't had a funeral."

During Operation Homecoming in 1973, an Air Force officer named Jerry Driscoll was released from a POW camp where he had been held for seven years. While in captivity, Driscoll found out Cooper's whereabouts and was told he died in the plane crash. Driscoll told U.S. military officials about Cooper but that information was not immediately relayed to Cooper's family.

Several Vietnamese villagers or soldiers "pulled him out from the wreckage," Berkes said, basing her knowledge on information she later learned from the government. "He was buried on a farm northeast of Hanoi. They buried him near a well. But all of those years I grew up wondering what happened to my dad and they knew all along. I'll never forgive them for it."

While still in Kansas, Berkes' family planted a tree in honor of Cooper and his name was placed on a memorial in Albany, Ga. where Cooper was born.

Government officials have traveled to Hanoi to Cooper's alleged grave. The remains were removed and taken to Hawaii for DNA testing.

Only "one good bone" could be used for the testing, Berkes said. Cooper's two surviving sisters donated their blood so the DNA could be compared.

Everything seemed to be going as planned after years of waiting.

"Then Sept. 11 happened, so all cases were put on the back burner," Berkes said. Government officials "had to go to New York and the Pentagon."

To this day "we still haven't heard but I have full confidence in them. The technology is getting better and better each month. I've been waiting 30 some years, so a few more won't hurt."

Berkes and her siblings have held on to old pictures of her father and letters he sent to their mother while he was in Vietnam.

He would tell his wife "to keep her chin up," Berkes said. "And he would say how we could win the war if they'd just let them fight it the way they should. You could tell he was frustrated."

"We don't have a grave to visit or put flowers on," Berkes said. "It's tough. I think if we get positive identification" of Cooper's remains "we can close that chapter."