Vietnam Unknown Exhumed – Reuters, May 14, 1998

The remains of a U.S. serviceman from the Vietnam War were exhumed from the military’s Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday and removed for high-tech identification tests.

Private contractors, working carefully at night and under an unprecedented order by Defense Secretary William Cohen, used a diamond-tipped cutting tool to slice open thick granite slabs around the marble cover of the Vietnam War crypt at the tomb.

Then a crane lifted the heavy cover and raised the casket out of the tomb, which is visited annually by tens of thousands of Americans and tourists from around the world.

After the private disinterment, the casket was draped with an American flag and the remains honored in a brief public ceremony before being taken in a hearse to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to begin DNA gene and other tests.

Cohen said at the ceremony the removal was done with ”profound reluctance” but with a need to identify the nation’s war dead.

The disinterment from the tomb, which also contains remains of U.S. military personnel killed in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, was conducted in response to a plea from the family of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, which believes his bones were buried there in 1984.

But Defense Department officials said the remains could have come from any of eight other U.S. troops lost in the area around the time that Blassie was shot down in South Vietnam May 11, 1972.

Bone fragments taken from the jungle were first tentatively identified as Blassie’s, then changed to “unknown” based on tests taken before they were later buried in the tomb.

This time, the remains will be tested using modern DNA gene and bone technology in a process that could take up to three months or more.

Forensic and anthropological experts said there was a good chance of solving the mystery, depending on the condition of the remains.

“We disturbed this hallowed ground with profound reluctance,” Cohen said at the brief, solemn ceremony at the tomb before the remains were removed to Walter Reed.

“We take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedom that we cherish. If advances in technology can ease the lingering anguish of even one family, then our path is clear,” he added.

“It (the casket) was removed shortly after midnight,” Patty Heard, a spokeswoman for the Military District of Washington, said. She told Reuters the marble top was put back on the empty crypt and a temporary privacy fence removed.

The marble and granite shrine, protected by marching troops and visited annually by throngs of tourists near Washington, represents tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel killed and missing in battle. It was created to honor those whose bodies were so maimed by the violence of war that their identities could not be determined.

Cohen said last week in announcing his decision that he had balanced the sanctity of the tomb against the need to identify as many missing U.S. troops as possible.

Experts said a positive identification might not be possible, but that small pieces of bone will be tested using modern DNA skeletal technology. Those results will be matched against tests expected on maternal family members of Blassie and eight other U.S. servicemen lost in the same area.

Testing will be done at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed in Washington and later at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at nearby Rockville, Maryland.

The six bones buried in the Vietnam crypt were tentatively identified as Blassie’s after they were found by South Vietnamese troops, but later reclassified as unknown when less sophisticated blood and other forensic tests at the time indicated they did not match his physical size.

Representatives of a Pentagon advisory panel which studied the controversy said in April the remains might be those of Blassie, of St. Louis, Missouri; Army Capt. Rodney Stobridge of Torrance, Calif., or perhaps one of seven other servicemen also lost in the area in 1972.

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