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Cragin Explains Recommendation on Tomb of Unknowns

By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 8, 1998 – "The tomb itself demands the attempt. No war memorial is more meaningful to more Americans than the Tomb of the Unknowns. It cuts across generations and decades with equal power. It affirms the greatest sacrifice ever made: more than a warrior's life, a warrior's very name and existence."

That excerpt from an April 29 USA Today editorial best characterizes the need to disinter the remains of the Vietnam Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, said DoDs Charles Cragin.

"I could never have said it more eloquently," he noted about the editorial. Cragin is the acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and a member of the senior DoD task force which recommended disinterment of the Vietnam Unknown.

"That is the sort of symbolic, emotional precept the task force members had as far as dealing with the issue of the Tomb," Cragin said. "Equally compelling -- and it was very, very difficult to balance the two at the beginning of our process -- was the national commitment to the fullest possible accounting of our missing in action."

At no time did the task force forget about what Cragin refers to as "the sanctity of the Tomb." But he said they could not let themselves be swayed only by the emotional side of the issue or concern about how the public would react to the scene of the disinterment process.

"When it got right down to the bottom line, and you had these two precepts staring you in the face, the issue was doing what is right," Cragin said. "And we felt, considering all the evidence, that it was right to recommend disinterment because we believe there is a greater than 50 percent probability we can identify the remains."

Cragin said if the remains are identified, they likely will be one of two men: Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie or Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge. Blassie was an A-37 pilot, and Strobridge flew a Cobra helicopter. Both were shot down near An Loc, South Vietnam, on May 11, 1972.

Seven other Americans were lost in a 25-miles radius. DoD will include them in scientific tests to determine identity, if possible.

Since 1984, new forensic technology called mitochondrial DNA testing makes it more likely the remains of the Vietnam unknown can be positively identified.

It was the new technology, combined with a trail of credible circumstantial evidence, that drove the task force to make its recommendation to disinter.

Blassie's family has pushed for disinterment during the past several months after becoming aware of evidence indicating the remains could be Blassie's.

Indeed, the remains now scheduled to be disinterred were once labeled as "believed to be Blassie" at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. They were reclassified to "unknown remains X26" in 1980 after exhaustive testing failed to demonstrate a positive link to Blassie. And in 1984, the remains were interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, alongside unknown service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

"I think everybody on [Capitol] Hill I met with understood the gravity of the decision that had to be made," Cragin said about his meetings with congressional members. "But as I said to one of the staffers, our parents never had this technology to use."

In addition to determining the likelihood the remains can be identified, Cragin said the task force's investigation has helped lay to rest assertions that political pressure resulted in Blassie's remains being reclassified and designated to interment.

While saying there was some pressure from veterans' service organizations in 1981-82 to have Vietnam-era remains interred, Cragin said that was long after the "believed to be Blassie" remains had been reclassified.

Also, Cragin said the remains known as "believed to be Blassie" were reclassified as unknown only after a year-long examination process in which all parties, including the Hawaii-based forensics lab, Air Force mortuary officials and the Armed Services Graves Registration Office, had an opportunity to review the evidence.

"We were into a careful analysis of the facts as they existed, as they were utilized by the people on the ground making these decisions," Cragin said. "And we couldn't find any evidence that would have suggested they reached the wrong conclusion in 1980 when they disassociated the remains from Blassie and 1984 when they were selected (for interment)."

Since the task force made its recommendation, Cragin said reaction from the public and military-related service organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and National League of POW/MIA families, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I'm not aware of any position by any of the organizations that is not supportive in attempting to meet our national commitment of the fullest possible accounting of our MIAs," he said.

Cragin said these groups are especially sensitive to the purpose and role of the Tomb of the Unknowns and want to preserve that role.

Again quoting from the USA Today editorial, Cragin said: "The tomb should remain true to that purpose: its contents tragically unknown, sadly unknowable."

Given current knowledge about the remains interred at the Tomb, and the state of technology, Cragin said the integrity of this purpose cannot be sustained unless disinterment and testing move forward.

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