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Couple commits to missing cousin, other Vietnam POW-MIAs

By HEATHER RUTZ | The Lima News, Ohio | Published: July 9, 2012

COLUMBUS GROVE, Ohio — From time to time, someone asks Jack and Wilma Laeufer if their 41-year effort with the Lima Area POW-MIA has been a waste of time, because they've never determined what happened to their cousin, Owen G. “Pete” Skinner, a Navy pilot who went missing in Laos on Dec. 12, 1970.

It's a ridiculous question, really. Through the efforts of loved ones who wouldn't let the public or U.S. government forget, 919 Vietnam veterans of the reportedly 2,583 American prisoners listed as missing or killed in action/body not recovered have been accounted for.

The Laeufers, who are both 79, have a better question to ask: Who will carry the POW-MIA flag now that they no longer can? After forming the chapter in 1973 and raising $250,000 for the cause through merchandise sales, the couple are dissolving the group this year. It's a painful decision, because they are afraid the answer is no one.

The 41-year commitment is not just for their cousin, although he is remembered everywhere in the house: a collage with grandchildren and the family cat includes a photo of Skinner's name on The Wall in Washington, D.C.

“It's been about not wanting these families to feel like they were going through this alone,” Wilma Laeufer said.

Jack Laeufer adds, “Their sons are our sons.”

Skinner was 37, married with two daughters, ages 10 and 13, when he decided to volunteer for the war in 1970. Jack and Wilma Laeufer are both related to him. Wilma Laeufer's mother and Skinner's mother were first cousins. Skinner and Jack Laeufer are also first cousins. Skinner is six months older than Jack Laeufer, which means that if Skinner is still alive, he's nearly 80 years old.

The Laeufers both still wear the same stainless steel bracelets they put on their wrists shortly before that Christmas in 1970, and they've sold 30,000 bracelets with Skinner's name. Jack Laeufer engraved many of them himself. They kept 50 cents from each bracelet for their work; the rest of the profit has gone to the Ohio POW-MIA chapter and the National League of POW/MIA Families, which does the work of accounting for the missing.

A naval instructor, Skinner believed that after sending so many young men to Vietnam, he should serve as well. Skinner was a navigator in a Bird Dog plane, which flew ahead of jets and identified targets. The Laeufers believe the plane experienced mechanical problems, but have scant information about what happened. They've received anecdotal information that if he survived the plane's failure, he may have been taken to Moscow for information about how to defend against U.S. air power.

The Laeufers tell story after story about the families they've met, places they've traveled, memorials they've experienced, parades in which they've walked, school presentations they've given. The relationships and believing they are making a difference with public awareness have sustained them.

Fifty-five years ago, after Jack Laeufer returned home from serving with the Army in the Korean War, Jack and Wilma married. A year later they moved into a home they designed themselves not far from where they grew up, just north of Lincoln Highway. They're still in the home, and the surrounding acres Jack Laeufer used to farm are now cash rented. He also retired from BP in 1990, and they raised two boys while running the POW-MIA organization. It became an IRS-recognized nonprofit in 1984, but they've been tracking expenses since June 13, 1974.

Wilma Laeufer pulls out a 3-inch thick three-ring binder of expenses and orders handwritten in her efficient cursive on ledger papers in reverse chronological order. She flips from the 2012 pages at the front to the back of the book. On that date, she recorded her first expense, $1.61 for “office supplies.” By April 1975, they were “in the black,” she said, and have been since then. The federal government, Jack Laeufer said, could learn a thing or two about budgeting and accounting from his wife.

“I have 9 cents unaccounted for,” Wilma Laeufer said. “It bothers me.”

The words hang in the air at the Laeufers' kitchen table. “Unaccounted for” is the same language used to describe the missing in action. It's not the amount of money she is upset about, but the idea that she can't find it.

The Laeufers have never solicited donations. All the money they donate is from profits of sold merchandise: POW stickers and decals; United States, POW and military flags; mud flaps and flagpoles. Earlier this spring, they announced plans to dissolve the chapter and began depleting the inventory.

The phone rings and a man from a Fraternal Order of Eagles chapter in Wapakoneta is calling. He needs another 50 of a certain size of flag. That leaves 54 left, Wilma Laeufer counts. The phone rings a little bit later; this caller will be by to pick up a flag he wants. It's continuing like this, Jack Laeufer said, as people scoop up what they can, especially of the flags that are made in the United States of U.S.-made materials.

As longtime suppliers to community and veterans groups, the Laeufers feel as if they're letting folks like this down by closing up shop. They wish they could sell a bit on the side, but the IRS doesn't look too kindly on that sort of thing, they've been told. But Wilma Laeufer thinks she'll end up doing something, a new chapter not yet written.

Jack Laeufer's not so sure they'll ever really be able to give up.

“You know, they'll be closing Wilma's casket, and she'll hold up her arm, saying, ‘I've got one more order.'”