If the Pentagon misled a St. Louis family whose son died in Vietnam and falsified records of his remains, they acted like “common thugs,” Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., a key member of the defense appropriations panel, called for a congressional investigation into any area the family wants explored and demanded an explanation from the Pentagon.
The congressional comments followed reports that the military may have quietly changed the designation of the remains of Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. An investigation by CBS News said the remains of the unknown Vietnam veteran buried in Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns “almost certainly” is that of Blassie.
Blassie, a decorated Air Force hero, was shot down in May 1972 while flying over a suspected enemy site in the jungle. Remains found in October were initially believed to be his.
Reports this week indicate that military officials moved his remains to the Tomb of the Unknowns because they needed an unidentified body.
“It seems that we will never be able to close the book on that nasty, sordid period in our history known as Vietnam,” said Clay, dean of the St. Louis area delegation.
“If it's true that the military destroyed evidence, which possibly could have identified the remains, it acted with no more integrity than common thugs.”
A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday the military had nothing to hide.
“By no means was anybody covering anything up,” said Larry Greer, of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.
“Records were destroyed, yes,” he said. “Purposely. So that the sanctity of the `unknown' could be preserved.
“That's traditional,” he added.
Greer said he had “no quarrel” with the facts in a CBS News investiga tion. But Greer said the conclusion that the remains are Blassie's is yet to be proven.
“It's one thing to say that the remains once believed to be those of Michael Blassie are the remains that are in the tomb,” Greer said. “That's true.
“It's another thing to say that it is Michael Blassie. We are not at that point yet.”
For now, he said, scientists and other Defense Department experts will try to answer two key questions:
* Does current science – meaning DNA technology – enable the military to conclude that the remains in the tomb can be identified?
* And if that degree of certainty can be established, should the tomb be opened and tests conducted on the remains?
Who will make those decisions? Greer said he didn't know. “This has never come up before,” he explained.
When will the decisions be made? Greer said he didn't know that, either.
“We are going to do this correctly, at a very measured pace,” he said. “We're more concerned about doing it right than we are about doing it fast.”
Greer acknowledged that in 1980 a military board had reclassified the remains thought to be Blassie's as “unidentified.”
“For reasons that we have yet to be able to determine, that association was removed,” he said.
He said there is no evidence that any pressure was applied to remove Blassie's name.
“I cannot see how there could have been any pressure to place that specific set of remains into the tomb,” he said.
Greer said rumors have circulated for years about who the unknown Vietnam veteran is.
“And they have had other names besides Blassie,” he said.
Greer said the argument for not opening the tomb is simple: “The remains in the tomb are unknown but to God, and the tomb is a symbol and a sacred symbol.”
He said that argument conflicts with the military's commitment to families of the dead.
“We are in unplowed territory here,” he said. “This has never come up before.”
Bond, who is chairman of the veterans appropriations subcommittee and a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, spoke with the Blassie family Tuesday, as did Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.
Bond's spokeswoman, Leanne Jerome, said that on Nov. 26, Bond and Ashcroft wrote the Pentagon asking the fate of Blassie after he was shot down in Vietnam – whether his body had been recovered, whether the case was active, what the disposition was.
The senators did not know then of the information reported this week, and regarded the letter as the kind of routine casework often done for families.
“The Pentagon did not respond,” Jerome said. “We are preparing a follow-up letter, demanding a response.”
Bond, who was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached, told his staff that “he would proceed with a congressional investigation into whatever the family felt was appropriate.”
Clay agreed that the family's needs should be paramount. “I think immediate attention should be given to the wishes of the family, as to the final disposition of the remains.”
A decision was made by the office of the Army surgeon general in 1980 to have the “BTB Blassie (believed to be Blassie)” designation removed from the remains, which were relabeled as unknown. Blassie's fate was listed as “killed in action, body not recovered.”
Neither the original belief that it was Blassie's body because of identification found nearby nor the subsequent changes were passed along to Blassie's family.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard