Thank you, Commander Vandengoorbergh, for that kind introduction.
I want to extend my deep appreciation for your comments and for the invitation to speak to you today. And I want to thank each of you for your selfless service to the nation.
America's veterans know from personal experience that freedom is not free: each of you has paid an enormous price to preserve our liberty. Your voices, collectively raised under the AMVETS banner, carry great moral and political weight-you speak with an authority that demands attention at the national level.
Secretary [of Defense William S.] Cohen knows this, and he has asked me to come here today because he values and respects your opinion. We at the Department of Defense need your help once again, as we have so many times in the past.
A momentous decision now rests with Secretary Cohen. I have known him for more than thirty years, and he is not one to make decisions lightly.
The issue before us concerns the Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown at Arlington Cemetery. With profound reluctance, we disturbed that hallowed ground last May in order to bring peace to a family who was rightly convinced that their son lay in the Tomb.
This was not an easy decision to make.
Secretary Cohen had to carefully weigh two competing national interests:
On the one hand was our enduring obligation to ensure the continued sanctity of the Tomb. On the other was our abiding commitment to make the fullest possible accounting for the warriors who fought for our nation and failed to return from the conflict in Southeast Asia.
In the end, our decision was shaped by the emergence of new technologies and advances in forensic medicine-specifically mitochondrial DNA testing-that were not available in 1984, when the remains were placed in the Tomb. With these new methods at hand, we had an opportunity-indeed we had an obligation-to ease the pain of a family. And so the decision was made to remove the remains and test them for possible identification. We consulted extensively with Congress and with family and veterans' organizations before going forward. The majority of public and private opinion backed our decision, difficult though it was. And, in the end, it was the right decision: right for the families involved, right for the Department of Defense, and right for the nation.
We are not a warlike people, but we have repeatedly fought to uphold our values and our freedoms around the globe. Throughout our nation's history, men fought and fell and now lay buried where they fell.This solemn story is told across the continents of Europe and Asia and here at home, where thousands of white headstones are arrayed in neat lines that silently testify to the courage of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. War brings death but it can also bring oblivion.There were others who fought and fell and were no more, forever unknown-"known but to God." At Arlington Cemetery, we as a nation have tried to honor the memory and sacrifice of those unknowns.
Today, awesome advances in technology have allowed us to give weight to the wishes of the family of a fallen warrior-and to make him unknown no more.
Through DNA testing, we now know that Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie was in the Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown. He now he rests in peace in his hometown, beside his father. We pray that his family has found the closure they so well deserve.
On behalf of Secretary Cohen, I want to reaffirm our pledge to those whose loved ones are still missing.
The U.S. government and the Department of Defense will not waver in their efforts to search for and find the warriors who fell in foreign lands and whose remains have not yet been identified and returned home. I believe that we made the right decision regarding the Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown, and I believe that it is right for us to continue our efforts on behalf of the missing in action and their families. But now we are faced with another difficult decision: In the absence of a Vietnam Unknown at Arlington Cemetery, how do we honor those who fell and failed to return?
Modern investigative techniques make it highly likely that in the future we will be able to match names with the more than 2,000 sets of remains from the conflict in Southeast Asia that have yet to be identified. And we may in fact never have another Unknown resulting from combat. So we are faced with these questions: Should the Tomb remain empty? Or should we search for another set of remains that, for now, are anonymous? The Tomb of the Unknowns is a profoundly sacred site, a symbol of personal sacrifice, of courage and fidelity, of freedoms preserved and lives lost in the pursuit of liberty. Michael Blassie has finally gone home to God and family. And although the Tomb remains empty, our hearts and minds are filled with the knowledge that those who remain unknown are not forgotten.
The Tomb is a hallowed place of honor and will remain so: America will always honor and respect its dead and missing whether they are known or unknown. An eloquent silence envelops the Tomb, broken only by the slow shuffle of the guard who is there to mark the deeds of the fallen. But that silence speaks to us nonetheless: it speaks to us about duty and honor, courage and commitment, and the sacrifices of those who died in service to their country.
The Tomb is a symbol that stirs our humanity. At the interment ceremony in 1984, President [Ronald] Reagan asked those gathered at the Tomb to "pray for the wisdom that this be America's last Unknown." We must continue to seek that wisdom, to pray for an end to war and suffering, but we must now also pray for guidance.Science has given Michael Blassie back his name. What will we give to those who remain nameless?
As you convene, I hope you will consider these issues and work to provide the Department of Defense with your thoughts and ideas.Secretary Cohen seeks and respects your input-and we look forward to continuing our consultations on this matter of enduring national significance.
Thank you very much.
Published by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of
the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs),
Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed
entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be
reprinted without permission.