Defense Secretary Orders Unknown Exhumed
Associated Press, May 7, 1998
years after President Reagan presided over the burial of a Vietnam veteran
in the Tomb of the Unknowns, the remains will be exhumed to see if they
can be identified after all.
Relatives of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a missing Vietnam War pilot, believe his remains are buried in the tomb. The decision announced Thursday, his sister said, could put them ``one step closer to bringing our family member home.''
Defense Secretary William Cohen agreed to disinter the remains ``after weighing the sanctity of the tomb with the need for the fullest possible accounting,'' said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.
``If we can identify the remains now we have an obligation to try,'' Bacon said. The families, he said, ``deserve nothing less.''
Blassie's family requested the remains be exhumed for possible identification in the hope modern and sophisticated forensics techniques can help.
``I can't say we're surprised, but we're certainly pleased,'' Pat Blassie, the pilot's sister, said Thursday. ``We've been told that in a best-case scenario, we will have word in one month. And the worst-case scenario is that it will take 10 to 12 weeks.''
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the exhumation is a result of ``a very strong commitment that this president and this administration have to the fullest possible accounting for those who are still missing from the Vietnam War.''
``That we see as a good thing,'' McCurry said. ``The question of whether or not they (the remains) may, at some point, be someone unknown, dead from the Vietnam War, is something we just have to examine and get good scientific advice on.''
The remains were placed in the tomb in 1984, several years after government scientists ruled they did not belong to Blassie.
Reagan presided over the funeral and awarded the Vietnam veteran the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award. Reagan also acted as next-of-kin and accepted the interment flag at the end of the ceremony.
The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery is dedicated to the nation's unidentified war dead. It is watched over 24 hours a day by a military honor guard. The Vietnam remains are buried in a separate crypt between two other crypts containing World War II and Korean War unknowns. They are in a row, directly in front of a sarcophagus containing remains of a World War I unknown.
John Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent, said an 8-foot-high fence will be erected around the site as workers prepare the tomb for the disinterment. A brief ceremony is scheduled for May 14, when a flag-draped casket containing the remains of the Vietnam unknown are to be removed.
Cohen expects to attend the ceremony, a senior Pentagon official said.
The remains will be taken under military escort to the Army Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where a forensic examination will begin.
In theory, the remains could belong to eight other Air Force or Army fighter and helicopter pilots who went down in the An Loc area the same time as Blassie but whose bodies were never found, the Defense Department said.
Last week, Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, recommended to Cohen that the remains -- the pelvis, right upper arm and four ribs -- be examined to try to clear up conflicting evidence about whether they belong to Blassie.
Some evidence found with the remains, including dog tags and gear, indicates they could be those of the St. Louis pilot, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972, Cragin said.
However, other evidence such as blood type and physical characteristics -- based on old forensic methods that could be unreliable -- didn't match, he said.
Government scientists said they will use DNA matching on the bones to determine blood type and whether it contains any Blassie family genetic material.
David Rankin, a U.S. Army forensic anthropologist, said he will examine the bones to estimate age, race, sex and height.
Rankin said he will also prepare bone samples for DNA testing at the Army Forces DNA Indentification Laboratory, which could take four months. The tests may not be conclusive, Rankin cautioned, because exposure to heat, bacteria and other conditions may have deteriorated the DNA.
Forensic evidence indicated the unknown Vietnam remains were of a man age 26-33, between 5-feet-5 1/2 and 5-feet-11 1/2 tall, and with type O negative blood. Blassie, who was about 6 feet tall and age 24, had type A positive blood.
Of the nine remains collected from the area around the same time, Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot, most closely matches the forensic evidence, according to Cragin. He was 5-feet-9 and 30 years old with type O-negative blood. Strobridge crashed the same day as Blassie. But Cragin said other evidence found with the remains indicates they aren't from Strobridge, including an A-37 ejection seat, parachute and life raft -- gear his AH-1 Cobra helicopter didn't have.