Unknown Service Member May Be Identifiable
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 1998 The Pentagon is trying to decide whether it needs to exhume the remains of a Vietnam War service member buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
At issue is whether a set of remains buried there are those of Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down in Vietnam in May 1972. Evidence recently gathered by Pentagon officials and documents received by Blassie's family members suggest the six bones buried at the tomb in 1984 may be the lieutenant's.
The family has asked the remains be exhumed for sophisticated DNA tests that were not available at the time the remains were selected for interment.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Mike Doubleday called the case a "very sensitive issue," and said DoD will conduct a thorough investigation before any action is decided.
"What we want to do is to determine, does the current science enable us with confidence to conclude that the remains in the tomb could be identified; and secondly, if we have a possible association with a specific individual, is it in the best interests of all concerned that we go ahead and do so," Doubleday said. "We have an obligation to family members who have unresolved questions. We also have an obligation to all of those who have served in wars in the past and who view this site as very hallowed ground."
Since 1948, the Tomb of the Unknowns has been under 24-hour guard by soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, "The Old Guard." The site is widely considered sacred ground by military personnel, veterans groups and citizens alike.
Searchers found remains, a wallet and identification card from the crash site in 1972. The remains subsequently were sent to the U.S. forensic laboratory in Hawaii. Examiners there believed, but could not conclusively prove, they belonged to Blassie.
In 1980, a DoD board reviewing the status of soldiers missing in action reclassified the remains, known as X-26, as unidentifiable. The remains were selected in 1984 to be placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns, alongside others killed in World I, World War II and the Korean War.
Once the remains were selected, all records about X-26 were destroyed. Doubleday said any existing records regarding remains buried at the tomb historically have been destroyed "to protect the sanctity of the site, and in keeping with the overall philosophy that the remains are 'known only to God.'"
Larry Greer, spokesman for DoD's POW-MIA office said the prospect of disturbing the Tomb of the Unknowns is a difficult issue, as well as unprecedented.
"Some see [the tomb] as inviolate," Greer said. Others, he said, citing the government's commitment to the fullest possible accounting of MIAs, say "if it leads to the tomb, then you must pursue."
A key issue which needs to be resolved is whether current testing procedures, which read the mitochondrial DNA in bone fragments, are likely to be effective in this case.
Although considered highly accurate, mitochondrial DNA testing is not foolproof. Greer said testing could positively identify the remains as those of Blassie or conclude they are not, or the tests could be inconclusive, depending on a variety of factors. Because of this, Greer said, it is important there be compelling evidence the remains in the tomb are indeed Blassie's before a final decision is made.
His and other offices in DoD are working to reconstruct as accurately as possible the sequence of events from the time Blassie's remains were believed to have been recovered to the time they were selected for interment.
The Blassie family is anxious to see the issue resolved as soon as possible, Greer said, but understands the sensitivity of the case and the steps which must be taken.
"There's no pressure for a timetable on this," Greer said. "It's more important to do it right, to do it in a methodical way."
In addition to the current internal investigation, Doubleday said the White House and Congress, which authorized interment of a Vietnam War unknown in 1973, would also be consulted.