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LOVED ONE LOST: Portrait of an Airman thirty-nine years Missing in Action

Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. -- They are your husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, or maybe a friend. They are deployed in the support of their country, in support of you. One day you receive a phone call, through the jumble of words, "missing in action," is the only thing you can grasp. What does that mean? Where are they? How do you get to them? When will you see them again? You wait. Days turn into months, months turn into years, years turn into decades. Still they don't return.

This is the story of Victor Apodaca II, and his sister Eleanor Apodaca - a Tucson resident who has never given up hope of her brother returning home.

Victor Apodaca was born May 31, 1937, and raised in Denver, Colo. He was the oldest boy of seven children belonging to Victor and Dora Apodaca-Chacon. The Apodacas made their living raising livestock and crop farming, "hard work but a good life." Victor had dreams as long as anyone can remember; he wanted to fly. Eleanor tells how his room had several model airplanes and also how the family would go every Saturday to the local theater and watch the news reels, a lot of which talked about the Korean War.

Victor excelled in everything he put his mind to. His grades were so high that he became part of the honor society, but he didn't stop there. He lettered in four sports: basketball, track and field, baseball, and football. He was interested in the arts as well performing in school plays and singing. According to his sister, his personality drew everyone and his laughter was infectious. It seemed that Victor was non-stop action, but what he didn't know was that his dreams of becoming a pilot would soon be realized.

In 1957, after studying engineering at the University of Colorado, he was accepted to the Air Force Academy with the recommendation of a congressman. Victor was the first minority - being of Navajo Spanish descendent - to be accepted into the Academy. He was in the second class to graduate, thus making his dream a reality - he was an F-4 Phantom II aviator. During his career he was assigned to various bases and even he instructed others, aiding them in accomplishing their own dreams in aviation. His last stateside assignment was at the 389th Training Squadron. By this time, he was married and had two young sons, Victor III and Robert, 5 and 3 years old.

Victor continued striving toward higher aspirations by applying to NASA's astronaut program. While waiting for NASA's acceptance, however, he volunteered to go where his country needed him - Vietnam. Victor celebrated his 30th birthday in DaNang in 1967. Eight days later on June 8th he flew a mission in which he commanded two F-4 phantoms. His plane was hit by 37mm anti-aircraft enemy gun fire 22 miles northwest of Dong Hoi, North Vietnam. Capt. Victor Apodaca and his pilot 1st Lt. John Busch were never heard from again.

The last day Eleanor saw her brother was around Easter 1967. She said she knew he was going into combat and that she probably said be careful and I love you. She believed he would return safely. Three months later, she received notice through a phone call that her brother was missing in action. Eleanor, along with other siblings, has never given up hope of Victor's return. Eleanor has dedicated her life to finding her brother. As the head secretary for the Biochemistry and Nutrition Department at the University of Arizona, conducting research for professors, she learned the art of research, a skill which has been crucial in her search for Victor. She also learned military jargon from military retirees that proved useful in deciphering military reports. Due to the declassification process, gaining information is a slow process, which hindered Eleanor's research into her brother's disappearance until the mid-70's, almost 10 years after his missing in action status.

Through the years information has been filtered back indicaing that Victor is alive in Southeast Asia. "In my heart I know he is surviving. He is doing what he has to, to survive," Eleanor said. Her life's mission is to bring him back home. In his absence, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter and named her Victoria. Victoria has been raised learning from Eleanor how to search for her namesake. If Eleanor is unsuccessful in her lifetime in bringing Victor home, Victoria will continue with her mother's task of love.

Three months after receiving the phone call stating that Victor was missing in action his family received a letter - Victor had been accepted to NASA. Victor left behind two young sons, who now have children of their own, grandchildren he has never laid eyes on. He left behind his parents who have passed on without ever seeing their son again. He left behind siblings who long to see their brother again. This man lived out his dreams, something that some of us can never claim in our lifetime, and yet he had so much more to offer. His sister Eleanor has a message for her brother: "I love you, I will not stop trying to get you home. I will get you home."

According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Web site, Victor is one of 10,021, who are missing in action from the Cold, Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. These men had dreams, these men had hopes, these men were loved. Will you remember them?