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Pentagon Officials Recommend Opening The Tomb
Courtesy Of CBS News, April 27, 1998
Pentagon officials recommended Monday that the remains of a Vietnam veteran be exhumed from the Tomb of the Unknowns for possible identification after the family of a downed Air Force pilot said they could be his remains. 

The recommendation will go to Defense Secretary William Cohen within the next couple of weeks for a final decision. 

Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said that a senior working group of Defense Department officials made their recommendation to exhume the remains after conducting a four-month investigation. 

Circumstantial physical evidence found with the remains indicates they could be those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie of St. Louis, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972, Craigin said. But other evidence, including blood types and physical characteristics, weren't conclusive, he added. 

Questions first arose about the possibility the Vietnam remains were those of Blassie's back in 1994, stemming from an effort to document prisoners of war and those missing in action from Vietnam. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, a veterans' publication, reported in July 1996 that the clothing, parachute fragments and other circumstances surrounding the discovery of the remains pointed to Blassie. CBS News reported in detail on the issue in January, touching off the latest round of questions.

The Defense Department says the remains could, in theory, belong to eight other Air Force or Army fighter and helicopter pilots who went down in the area during the same time period, but whose bodies were never found,. 

As a result, Cragin said that Pentagon officials determined that the only way to be certain whether or not the remains were those of Blassie was to exhume them. 

"There are concerns about the sanctity of the Tomb ... but on balance we came down to what is right," he told reporters at a briefing. 

Cragin said the Defense Department has been in touch with members of the families of all nine service members whose remains could in theory be involved. But he said Pentagon officials believe the most likely candidate remains Blassie. 

Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot, crashed the same day and in the same region as Blassie and his physical characteristics are similar, but Cragin said the remains were found with an A-37 ejection seat, a parachute and a life raft, things that Strobridge's AH-1 Cobra was not equipped with. 

The investigation into the Tomb of the Unknowns began in January after evidence surfaced questioning the Pentagon's original decision to bury the remains at the Arlington National Cemetery monument. Blassie's family noted that his idenfication and some personal effects were found with the remains, for example. 

But Cragin said the current investigation showed that defense officials were correct to originally rule that the remains didn't seem to belong to Blassie because of other physical evidence, including a blood type that didn't match. New technology, however, may be able to match the remains' DNA with Blassie's family, he explained. 

Pat Blassie, a family spokewoman, said she was thrilled with the Pentagon's investigation and plans to exhume the remains if Cohen approves. 

"I believe our question will be answered about whether that's Michael Blassie or not," she said in a phone interivew from Atlanta. "That's all we've ever wanted was the answer."

Defense Department officials this week are briefing members of Congress, veterans and family groups about their findings before handing the recommendation to Cohen. 

So far, Cragin said, veterans' groups haven't objected. 

Blassie's remains were placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1985. In separate crypts, remains are buried of unidentified warriors from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. 

Questions first arose about the possibility the Vietnam remains were those of Blassie's back in 1994, stemming from an effort to document prisoners of war and those missing in action from Vietnam. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, a veterans' publication, reported in July 1996 that the clothing, parachute fragments and other circumstances surrounding the discovery of the remains pointed to Blassie. CBS News reported in detail on the issue in January, touching off the latest round of questions.

Cragin said the government's forensic identification lab in Hawaii as several more unidentified remains in custody that could conceivably be buried in the Tomb if Blassie is identified. But he noted that decision would be made much later.