Vietnam Unknown Disinterred
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va., May 14, 1998 The Army Band played "Going Home" as a joint-service casket team carried the remains of the Vietnam Unknown to a waiting hearse.
The hearse, the final part of the May 14 disinterment ceremony here, delivered the remains to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center nearby in Washington. Scientists there hope mitochondrial DNA tests will determine the serviceman's identity.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said his decision to disinter the Vietnam Unknown from the Tomb of the Unknowns was a tough one. "We disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance," he said at the Tomb. "We take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we cherish."
A DoD Senior Working Group recommended Cohen decide to disinter the remains. The officials said evidence pointed to the remains being one of two men: Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie or Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge. Both died May 11, 1972, during combat missions near An Loc, South Vietnam, where the remains were later found. Blassie flew an A-37; Strobridge piloted a Cobra helicopter.
Seven other American servicemen were lost within a 25-mile radius of An Loc. DoD will include them in scientific tests to determine identity, if possible.
Mitochondrial DNA testing was not available when the Vietnam Unknown was buried in 1984. DoD forensic scientists now routinely use the test to help determine identities of remains brought back from Southeast Asia and Korea. The test is not infallible, officials said, but a match lends credence to an identification because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from mothers and doesn't change through the generations. The better-known genomic DNA is a random blend of millions of genes inherited from both parents.
A total of 18 family members from five of the nine families attended the service. The Blassies, who pushed for disinterment, felt they were bringing a family member home. "We are sure those remains are of Mike Blassie," said his sister Pat after the ceremony. "Michael Blassie is not unknown, and that is why we want to bring him home to St. Louis where he belongs."
David Amesbury of Albany, Ore., said all families of those missing in action have "a nagging doubt" about what happened to their loved ones. "You want to know what happened," he said. "You are always wondering." His father, Air Force Maj. Harry A. Amesbury Jr., was command pilot of a C-130 lost near An Loc.
Amesbury said he was affected by the ceremony. "That's someone's father or brother or son who died for his country," he said. "If they can have closure through this test, it should be done."
Cohen took the same position during his remarks. "If advances in technology can ease the lingering anguish of even one family, then our path is clear," he said. "We yield to the promise of science with the hope that the heavy burden of doubt may be lifted from a family's heart."
Arlington workers erected a privacy fence around the Tomb area May 13. During the night, workers removed the stonework, and cemetery workers exhumed the casket. A specialist from the Army's Central Identification Lab in Hawaii placed an evidence seal around the casket and workers draped an American flag over it.
Arlington Cemetery Superintendent John Metzler Jr. said the casket was in good condition. This bodes well for scientists attempting to extract DNA from the six bones in the casket.
By the time the cemetery opened on the morning of May 14, workers had replaced the Vietnam Unknown's Tomb stonework and the paving stones around it. The casket rested on a green bier directly in front of its former burial place. Tomb sentinels from the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment guarded the site.
On the monumental tomb over the remains of the World War I Unknown is inscribed: "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God."
Army Chaplain (Col.) Leo J. O'Keeffe, in his invocation, evoked God's help in the identification process. "If it be your holy will, make known the identity of this unknown Vietnam serviceman and bring peace to an American family," he said. "But if the answer we seek is not ours to know, let us hold fast to our belief that this serviceman is known to you, O God."