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Press Briefing, June 30, 1998, Subject: Vietnam Unknown

Presenters: Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Rudy de Leon, et al.
June 30, 1998 1:00 PM EDT

(Participating in the press briefing were Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Rudy de Leon, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Charles Cragin, Deputy Director of the Defense Prisoner of War Missing/Personnel Office Alan Liotta, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Lt. Gen. David Vesely, and Ed Huffine, chief of the mitochondrial DNA section of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.)

Mr. Bacon: Rudy de Leon and his team are here to take more questions.

Secretary de Leon: I'm Rudy de Leon. I'm the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. I and others will be answering any follow-up questions you might have.

First, as the Secretary [of Defense] did, I'd like to thank the families that participated. This opened up chapters in some of their lives, but it brought closure and we are grateful to them.

In addition, I'd like to thank some of the people that have been working on my team on this issue for the last several months. It's been a rather comprehensive process, but Doug Dworkin of the Office of Secretary of Defense [OSD] General Counsel; Bill Coleman, the Army General Counsel ; Allen Liotta who will be up here with me in a second answering questions; Fred Vollrath, Lieutenant General, United States Army [Deputy Chief of Staff] for Personnel; Dave Vesely, the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force; Jack Metzler, the Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery; Lieutenant Colonel Sharon Dunbar of my office; Fred Smith of OSD Policy; Jan Lodal, the Principal Deputy in OSD Policy; and Charlie Cragin, my own Principal Deputy. I'd like to thank them for their help and assistance in working together, really, on a project that had no precedent. Joining me today to answer your questions are Charlie Cragin; Allen Liotta, the Deputy Director of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO); the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Dave Vesely; and Ed Huffine, the chief of the mitochondrial DNA section of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab [AFDIL]. I'd also like to thank retired Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Webb of the CILHI [Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii] lab for his assistance as our task force has worked and met. So having gone through that introduction, we're happy to answer any questions that you might have, please.

Q:...of the original forensic anthropology report showed that there was a different blood type, different height, different age, and it seemed to point to Strobridge. Can you explain that? And can you also tell us how sure you are that there's a match between [Michael] Blassie and his remains?

Cragin: As I briefed a number of you some time ago, when the CILHI made its initial assessments, it made the determinations based upon some anthropological studies and a blood typing, as well as an evaluation of personal effects that were turned over to American military personnel in An Loc by Vietnamese militia.

The anthropological studies indicated that the stature of the individual, based essentially on the size of a portion of the pelvic bone and the right humerus matched with the anthropological stature of Captain Rodney Strobridge and did not, in fact, have a specific match with Captain [Lieutenant] Blassie.

There were some leg hairs found in the right leg of a portion of the flight suit that was delivered as part of the personal effects. Those leg hairs were subjected to blood typing and the blood type indicated an O blood type, whereas Captain Strobridge was an O type and Lieutenant Blassie was an A type. So we had the anthropological and blood typing studies at the time going in one direction. At the same time we had the personal effects that were brought in with the remains indicating in the other direction because there was a single life raft, which would be consistent with Lieutenant Blassie's aircraft and would not be consistent with a Cobra helicopter, Captain Strobridge's aircraft or a C-130 that had also gone in in the An Loc area between May and October.

So really, the evidence at that point was in equipoise, and you couldn't reach a conclusion one way or the other, and it was for that reason that we had to wait for the technology to arrive with mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA].

Q: Does that mean those remains probably don't have type O blood, or that those tests were wrong?

Cragin: We now know... Keep in mind when you first evaluate the evidence you look at it as of the time it occurred and not with the great beauty of retrospection. We now know that those types of blood typing studies are only about 67 percent reliable even under the best of laboratory conditions, and we certainly know that these were not laboratory conditions under which the leg hairs, the body hairs were found.

We also don't know, because of the lack of any chain of evidence, as to really whose body hairs they were. But we do know now that those tests were not as reliable as were presumed at the time.

  • Q: How sure, percentage wise, are you that this is Michael Blassie?
  • Cragin: The scientists tell us, and Mr. Huffine is here and can speak on behalf of AFDIL, but they tell us that they are 99.9 percent sure, based on the perfection of the match, of the sequences between the mtDNA extracted from the bone samples and the mtDNA samples provided by Mrs. Blassie and Michael Blassie's sister Patricia, that they have a specific match. At the same time, they were also able, based on the samples provided by the other families, to exclude those samples. So we have both a specific match for Blassie as well as an exclusion of the other families.

Huffine: As was just stated, one of the strongest aspects of mitochondrial DNA is its ability to exclude people when you have a very narrow population of individuals. That's something that CILHI did for us. They investigated what potential families these remains could belong to and they went out and they gathered family references for those particular families they thought would be able to account for those remains. Not only did it match this one family, all the others that we tested were excluded. That's some of the power of mitochondrial DNA.

Q: As we understand it, the technique can work, as you say, when you have a very small universe of possible persons. How would it work on the 2,000 remaining unknowns where you have a much larger universe? Is it something in your judgment that would work?

Huffine: For the Southeast Asia cases there's generally a lot of other circumstantial evidence. They generally know the place of the loss, they might know the time of the loss, so even in those, if you have 2,000 sets of remains, those that are returned generally are defined to only be a few potential individuals. So once again, if it's either person A, B, or C, we can generally rule out two of the three individuals and it will match the third.

Q: How many remains are there at CILHI now that could possibly be an unknown if you were going to choose?

Liotta: From the Vietnam era there are more than 100 sets of remains or portions of sets of remains that are currently undergoing forensic identification techniques and then there are also several hundred for Korea.

Q: Is it likely that you are now going to track each of these using the DNA technology that you developed and worked on here?

Liotta: The laboratory currently as part of its standard procedures, when it believes that DNA can help us as a tool in the forensic identification process, will take a sample and provide it to AFDIL and ask them to see if they can get a sequence from it.

Q: For the specific sets of remains that had been considered as candidates for the Tomb of the Unknown, are you now going back into those specific cases and trying to make matches of those?

Liotta: Are you referring to the initial case in 1984?

Q: Yes.

Liotta: No, they have not gone back. In several cases we've gotten additional information which would lead us to a process that would possibly exclude them from meeting all the criteria that would be necessary. So again, as the Secretary [of Defense] said, we have not crossed that bridge as to where we're going to go next. If a decision is made to do that, all the various pieces will be looked at in the appropriate means.

Q: What is the difficulty in saying yeah, we want to take this as far as we can? Is it money, is it politics? Where is the barrier to saying yes, we want to go ahead with trying to identify as many of these as we can?

de Leon: I think the protocol now is such, as the Secretary [of Defense] said, using the science, that we may not reach the point where we're going to truly hit a dead end. In trying to reconstruct the decisionmaking process back in 1984, the people at the time truly felt they had reached a dead end, that they could go no further in a legal sense. With the DNA science, you're dealing with a situation where you may well have a DNA signature on file that hypothetically could be matched against a family later in time. So as the Secretary [of Defense] said, we would not rule out categorically that there might be another Vietnam unknown at this time, but the process that we have undergoing is one that is really not designed to deal with sort of dead ends because the science does give us additional approaches.

Q: ...determine what the future of the term is, whether there will be a soldier in there or not, and how long that will take. Are we talking months or years or what?

de Leon: I think we have a number of consultations that have to occur. Recall that the entombment was authorized by Act of Congress, so we would need to speak with the appropriate committees of jurisdiction in the Congress. Second, we would want to speak with the veterans organizations as well as organizations that are associated with the accounting and identification of our missing in action. And then really also talk to the scientists and find out truly, not simply are there remains that are unidentified at this point, but whether there is truly something that is unidentifiable so that the "known but to God" will really be the absolute standard.

The scientists really have their methodology as their integrity and that's been one of the more interesting aspects of working on this project, is to first be assured of the competence of the individuals that are really working in these labs; second, to see firsthand their personal dedication to a full accounting. So there are so many tools that modern science has opened. That in combination with our country's commitment to fully account for all of our missing military personnel, I think those two things have changed the...

Q: How many missing are there now? What are we talking about?

Liotta: From Vietnam there's 2,087. From the Vietnam conflict. That breaks down to 1,556 from Vietnam; 446 from Laos; 76 from Cambodia; and 8 from China.

Q: You say you have 100 sets of remains, that's the universe that you're working with at this point?

Liotta: That's what's been recovered, repatriated back to the laboratory and still undergoing identification.

Q: Other than the eight families who provided samples in this case, are you getting samples from other families of unknowns just because the maternal bloodlines may end? Cragin: Just to correct the record, we had ultimately seven families that provided samples, including Mrs. Strobridge as well as the Blassie family.

Q: What about my question?

Liotta: Family members from the Vietnam and the Korean conflict routinely send reference samples and can send reference samples to the DNA repository. They can receive a kit through their respective casualty office and put it on file. We are seeking to build that repository as large as we can because it helps validate the science as we do that.

Q: Then they can initiate it themselves?

Liotta: Yes, they can.

Q: You just need to get the word out that they should do that.

Liotta: Correct.

Q: Is it possible then to apply these techniques to remains of Korean War and possibly as well, World War II missing in action? And could this not open up the possibility of the World War II Unknown becoming known at some point? Is that also possible?

Huffine: It is possible. Just to update you a little bit on the type of cases that we're actually doing. Not only are we successfully completing Southeast Asia cases, we're also successfully completing Korea era losses. And we've now gone back to World War II and in a few isolated incidents, are able to do successful DNA matches on those remains also.

Q: When you're going back to World War II, you know where these guys were and you can say there were 12 guys that went down in a B-17, and then you can match it that way. The one who's in the Tomb right now could be from Europe or from the Pacific or anywhere. You're not going to be able to make that one that small...

Cragin: You're absolutely right on point. This is a process that generally is an excluder. Therefore you need the other forensic evidence -- circumstantial, anthropological, etc. -- before you can utilize this part of the process. So you're right on target on your assessment, sir.

Q: Do you foresee any circumstance in the future where you would disturb the Tomb again? Perhaps for the Korean remains?

de Leon: I do not.

Q: Can you state how many identifications you've made in addition to this one using this technology?

Huffine: This will be a ball park figure because I have not reviewed the final number of DNA-matched reports that we have generated, but I believe it's somewhere in the 70-90 range currently.

Q: Also to follow up, I assume the DNA test was the clincher here, but was there other forensic evidence that you uncovered in the last month or so that pointed toward the Blassie identification?

de Leon: A couple of things. First, we started with just an incredible database on Lieutenant Blassie. Those who were there when the remains were received in October 1972 followed a series of processes that we can all be proud of. The remains were logged in, there was an Army captain who recorded the fact that with these remains, in addition to the pieces of flight suit and other items consistent with an Air Force fighter, his identification card was there. That was logged in, other identification was logged in. So we started with a series of pieces of information, and that really led to the original designation that the remains were believed to be Michael Blassie.

In talking with the lab officials, the forensics were inconclusive. That is to say they could not directly associate the forensic data at the time with Blassie. Therefore, the lawyers could not make an absolute determination on the identity. It was as much a legal issue as it was a substantive one at the time.

The DNA is the additional piece that they didn't have that we do have. From what I'm led to believe, the match was quite a vivid match. I don't know if there's anything you want to elaborate on that. So when you look at the circumstantial evidence, the ID card being recovered, the equipment being recovered, with these remains being associated with an Air Force aircraft, not a C-130. In addition to the DNA, I think this is what lends us to have that 99 percent confidence.

Q: Going back to that original recovery, you didn't have a very good chain of custody linking the personal effects... You knew he'd crashed, but you didn't know, four months had passed. You didn't know just because you get a life raft that it's the life raft that goes with those remains.

de Leon: Right. You can accept that as circumstantial, but you can't make the legal connection.

Q: So if I understand you correctly, you really had no good forensic evidence at the time or maybe even now when you went back and did the anthropological studies again, that pointed to Blassie. Or did you?

Cragin: When you start talking about the word evidence, there was clearly evidence. But as I said earlier, it became in equipoise.

Q: ...circumstantial. I understand that that was pointing towards Blassie, but I'm talking about the anthropological evidence. Did you have any of that, or did you learn any as he asked, before you did the mitochondrial DNA?

Cragin: As part of this process, once the remains were removed from the Tomb, anthropologists reviewed all of those remains again. They would conclude, and I think the report will indicate, that anthropologically, based on the stature, and keep in mind that this is not an exact science as we all understand, they were minimally consistent with Lieutenant Blassie. Minimally consistent. And I think given the addition of the additional evidence of the mtDNA, that that gives you the ability to reach the conclusion. Absent that, I think it would be fair to say we would be right back where we were in that earlier period prior to mtDNA.

Q: You said that, or Secretary Cohen said tomorrow, three outside consultants are looking at the report now and expect to report tomorrow, and then it goes to Mrs. Blassie for her to look at and for her to give an okay, or...

Cragin: This is the standard procedure that is utilized with respect to the identification of any remains, that essentially AFDIL, if AFDIL does an mtDNA test as part of it will then provide its reports to CILHI. CILHI takes that forensic information, combines it with all of the other information with respect to the case, [and] makes its conclusions. Once it has reached a conclusion that an identification should be recommended, it then sends its recommendation to three independent consultants, asks them to concurrently but separately review its recommendation, provide their response, and report back to CILHI. CILHI will then consider those recommendations as part of its package and then if they still have concurrence and if they don't, obviously they'll move towards resolution, but assuming concurrence, CILHI will then transmit that entire package with the identification recommendation to the mortuary affairs organization, the so-called CMOC, which then will turn over the case file to the Military Department from which the person who is now being recommended for identification comes from, in this case the Air Force.

At that point the Air Force, and in this case Lieutenant General Vesely, will take that case file to the family and say that we are now in a position where CILHI is recommending that these remains be identified as your son and we want to provide you with an opportunity to review the entire case file and to share with us your comments and observations, and generally speaking, families are provided about 30 days, but as you can well imagine, that's not a hard and fast rule.

At the conclusion of the input from the family, that package will then be provided to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board and that is the legal entity which then convenes a panel of officers which reviews the entire file and that panel is the official organization that makes the legal identification.

  • Q: What are we talking about for the timeframe? You're assuming that it all goes...
  • Cragin: To some extent, as I indicated, it's dependent on how fast the Blassie family wants to review the case file. We're in the process of, as indicated, getting the input from the three independent consultants and we expect to have that in within the week.

When that comes in, it will be compiled and then that process that I've just articulated to you will take place.

Q: You describe the match as a vivid one. Can you explain more specifically where you took the samples from the now identified Blassie remains and where you got the sample from the mother, and what made the match so vivid?

Huffine: The way we normally process a case, if bone fragments come in we extract the mitochondrial DNA from those and basically type it. We received, I believe, from this particular case six bone fragments, [and] obtained the mitochondrial DNA sequence. Then we got blood references from two maternal relatives of Blassie. We sequenced those blood references and did a comparison, and in all 610 bases that were reported for the mitochondrial DNA from the bones, there was the same sequence observed for the references. Compared to our database, that was a sequence that had never been seen before. So it is a relatively uncommon sequence.

Q: How many families among the 2,000 still listed as missing, for a variety of reasons, some of them being embittered with the process, have declined to provide blood samples? How does that complicate your work in trying to complete identification?

Liotta: It depends on the uniqueness of the case. If we need DNA as a tool to help us make the identification and we're unable to get a reference sample, then we can't use the technology that would be available to us. What we have found is because it's a relatively new science and it's being used increasingly, we have made a greater outreach effort to try and talk to families and explain the process. AFDIL as a laboratory has been made open to the family members so that they can travel there and answer questions in an effort to try and educate.

In this process itself, with the large work that a lot of you did for us, put out a lot of good words on the science itself, explaining it, and helped educate very many people. We saw some increase in reference samples coming in as a result of the higher education process that went on.

Q: How many samples do you have now from families? Do you have a ball park?

Cragin: 2.3 million samples are in our DNA...

Q: From the families still listed as missing. How many of them complied or how many...

Liotta: From Southeast Asia I don't have an exact number, but I can tell you that the lab reports they're getting about 10 or 15 reference samples a week that are coming in. And I don't know if those are all Southeast Asia. Some of those may well be Korea as well.

Q: Does the Pentagon have any plans to... What preparation will be made to return the remains and return for the funeral? Will you be involved in that?

Vesely: We have been in touch with the family. Once the process that was just described with you is completed, we will then work with the family, have the remains transported to the St. Louis area, and we will be involved with the memorial service, and he will be buried with full military honors.

Q: So you've got to have the mother in order to make the positive ID and you can't take any lineage from that mother...

Huffine: It has to be a maternal relative. So it can be anyone who is related to that individual only through the female line. So you potentially could have dozens of potential donors. It could be a male donor but his children, if he's related maternally...

For instance, the mother's brother could also donate, but his children could not donate. The mother's sister could donate, and her children could also donate. It goes through women to the next generation. It can go to a man, but can't be passed from that man to his offspring.

Q: So you can go on down then to younger females in the lineage.

Huffine: Yes, as long as it's maternal, it could be a cousin. As long as they're maternally related.

Q: So you could do World War II.

Huffine: Potentially.

Q: At this point you haven't yet made a DNA match with a World War II set of remains?

Huffine: Yes, we have made a DNA match.

Q: These remains were in the field, I believe it was four months. If remains are found now, of missing, someone who is missing from Southeast Asia, is it unlikely that you'll be able to come up with the DNA material, if the remains have been out in the field for 20-some years?

Huffine: It's definitely not unlikely. The longer they're in the field, especially in a place that is detrimental to DNA... For instance, [if it's] very warm, very humid, DNA tends to degrade faster there. The longer they're in the field the less likely it becomes to obtain DNA, but recent recoveries, we're able to extract DNA from those remains and send out reports on the DNA.

Q: From Southeast Asia?

Huffine: From Southeast Asia.

Press: Thank you very much.