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Try to Identify Unknown, Cohen Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 7, 1998 – Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has approved a study group's recommendation to disinter the Vietnam Unknown from the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery, Pentagon officials said May 7.

A DoD senior working group concluded new mitochondrial DNA testing may allow scientists to determine the service member's identity. DoD will disinter the remains May 14.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said the secretary had to weigh the sanctity of the Tomb of the Unknowns against the DoD policy to provide full accounting of those service members missing in action. "[Cohen] concluded if we can identify [the service member], then we have an obligation to do so," Bacon said.

If all goes perfectly, DoD may be able to announce the identity of the Unknown in three months, said Alan Liotta, deputy director Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.

Charles Cragin, acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs and a member of the DoD working group, said if the remains are identified, they likely will belong to 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 are known lost within a 25-mile radius. DoD will include them in scientific tests to determine identity, if possible.

Arlington Cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. said workers will start disinterment the night of May 13. He said members of the Tomb Guard -- specially selected soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry -- will continue their watch.

Arlington workers will remove paving stones around the marble cover of the crypt, then lift off the marble cover. Under the cover is a cement cover, and inside that is the casket. Metzler said the remains were placed in a blanket, then sealed in plastic. If the bag has not been breached, he believes the remains should be in good condition.

Once the workers remove the casket, David R. Rankin, a forensic anthropologist with the Army's Central Identification Lab in Hawaii, will place an evidence tape on the casket so chain of custody is continued.

After a short ceremony, a hearse will take the remains to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. Rankin will open the casket and begin examining the remains. He will perform an anthropological examination, and try to determine the race, age, sex and stature of the person based on his observations. He will then prepare a bone sample for testing at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md.

Scientists at the DNA lab have identified people through mitochondrial DNA since 1991. Mitochondrial DNA is that DNA outside the nucleus of a cell.

"There are hundreds of copies of mitochondrial DNA in each cell," said lab chief Mitchell M. Holland. "The other characteristic is [mitochondrial DNA] is maternally inherited." In other words, the more commonly known genomic DNA [inside the nuclei of cells] is a mix of both parents' DNA. Mitochondrial DNA comes only from the mother.

If scientists can isolate two grams of the mitochondrial DNA from the bone, they will try to match it against samples from the families of the nine men DoD believes could possibly be the Unknown. Officials said the match alone is not enough to establish identity, but a match plus forensic analysis is.

Officials stressed that outside experts will monitor the entire process. For example, Kevin C. McElfresh, vice president and director of research for the Bode Technology Group in Sterling, Va., will monitor the mitochondrial DNA process to ensure it meets rigorous standards. Others will monitor the disinterment and be present when officials open the casket.

A DoD news release discussed three possible outcomes: the testing could conclusively identify the remains as one of the nine possible Americans lost near An Loc; the remains are not from one of the nine; or the testing could be inconclusive.

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