Department of Defense Panel Recommends Disinterrment – American Forces Press Service – April 1998

A DoD senior working group recommends the remains of the Vietnam Unknown be disinterred at Arlington National Cemetery to see if new technology can identify that person.

The panel recommends subjecting the remains to mitochondrial DNA tests developed by the Armed Forces Identification Lab in Rockville, Md. Military experts can use the test to assist in the identification of skeletal remains.

Charles Cragin, acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, told Pentagon reporters Monday the remains now in the tomb could possibly be one of two men: Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie or Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge. Blassie was an A-37 pilot, and Strobridge flew a Cobra helicopter. Both were shot down near An Loc, South Vietnam, on May 11, 1972.

Seven other Americans were lost in a 25-mile radius, and DoD would include them in the test if disinterment occurs.

Cragin said that if Defense Secretary William S. Cohen agrees with the group's recommendation, DoD will have to go to relatives on the mother's side of the family for samples to compare the DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is transported through the maternal line.

Blassie's family has pushed for disinterment. South Vietnamese soldiers recovered the remains and some personal effects from the crash site in October 1972. Prior to 1980, officials labeled the remains “believed to be” Blassie. In 1978, the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, tested the skeletal remains.

“The anthropologists reached the forensic opinion that, looking at the stature of Lt. Blassie when compared with what they consider the outer parameters of the stature of the individual whose right humerus [upper arm] bone they were evaluating, that there was only a 1.1 percent probability that the stature of the individual who belonged to the [bone] could be 1st Lt. Blassie,” Cragin said.

Researchers also conducted blood typing tests on some hair and blood on a flight suit. “That blood typing came back with an O-negative grouping,” Cragin said. “1st Lt. Blassie's blood type was A-positive.”

Cragin said based on the evidence, officials reclassified the remains to “unknown remains X26.”

In 1984, the remains were interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington alongside service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

If Cohen decides to disinter the remains, Cragin listed the possible outcomes. “First is that [mitochondrial] DNA testing could conclusively identify the remains … ; second, that [mitochondrial] DNA could determine that there is not a match with any of the nine candidates; or third, that the testing would be inconclusive and we'd essentially be left with a historic record and the facts as we know them today,” Cragin said.

He stressed the report has not been submitted to Cohen. But Cohen, during a press briefing the same day in the Senate, said he would decide in a week or two.

Pentagon officials have contacted relatives of the men affected, veterans groups and Congress. Cragin said the primary issues at stake are the sanctity of the tomb and the U.S. national commitment to a full accounting of missing service members.

He said the senior working group looked at the issues surfaced by the Blassie family, the reliability of mitochondrial DNA tests and the legal implications involved with a disinterment from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The group concluded there were enough remains to justify disinterment. “The people at [the Central Identification Laboratory] who were familiar with these remains at the time they were interred in the Tomb … expressed the opinion that they felt there was a greater than 50 percent probability of being able to extract mitochondrial DNA from these remains,” Cragin said.

The group asked the DoD general counsel about legal implications in disinterment. “To a great extent we follow the precedent of state law, which is essentially that you disinter when good cause is shown,” Cragin said.

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