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Tomb of Vietnam Unknown May Remain Empty

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 1999 – A final decision has not been made, but Defense Secretary William S. Cohen will probably not authorize burial of another Vietnam unknown at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

Rudy de Leon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, consulted with experts at the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and recommended DoD leave the tomb empty.

Given the science available today, it is "very unlikely that we will find any more remains that we can say beyond a shadow of a doubt we cannot identify," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said during a Feb. 25 news conference. More than 200 sets of remains are at the lab in Hawaii, and officials expect to identify them all, Bacon said. More than 2,000 Americans are still missing from the Vietnam War.

Bacon said the question now is how the department will deal with the empty tomb in a dignified way. "It's likely that we will end up putting on an inscription of some sort that remembers the men who died during the war and whose remains have not been found," he said.

In April 1998, DoD announced it would disinter the remains of the Vietnam Unknown that had been in place since 1984. On May 14, 1998, Cohen presided over the ceremony. "We disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance," he said during the ceremony. "We take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms we cherish."

On June 30, 1998, DoD announced that tests conducted by the Central Identification Laboratory and Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory showed the remains were those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, who died May 11, 1972, when shot down on a combat mission near An Loc, South Vietnam.

Blassie's funeral was held in St. Louis on July 11, 1998.

Bacon said DoD wants to avoid another situation like Blassie's. "It was painful. It was awkward," he said. "I think everybody agrees we did the right thing, but we don't want to create another problem for ourselves by putting in a set of remains that at some time in the future may be identified."

Bacon said DoD officials will consult with veterans groups and family groups before Cohen makes his final decision. "[The Tomb of the Unknowns] is a sacred place," he said. "It's a very important symbol of American sacrifice, and we want to make sure that in leaving the Tomb empty an appropriate recognition is made of the sacrifices that were made."

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