Tomb of the Unknowns May Remain Sealed

Defense Secretary William Cohen suggests there may never be another addition to the Tomb of the Unknowns now that the remains of a Vietnam-era serviceman buried there 14 years ago have been positively identified as an Air Force pilot.

“It may be that forensic science has reached a point where there will be no other unknowns in any war,” Cohen said Tuesday.

Still, Cohen told reporters he will confer with appropriate congressional leaders, veterans organizations and representatives of missing-in-action organization on next steps.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Defense Department has identified the remains of 496 Americans. There are about 100 sets of remains still being analyzed, officials said. And 2,087 Americans remain unaccounted for.

Since it took an act of Congress to inter a Vietnam Unknown in 1984, it would take another act of Congress to inter additional remains.

The remains of 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, who was 24 at the time of his death, were identified through intensive DNA testing, including comparisons of DNA with blood samples provided by his mother and sister.

The DNA tests are so accurate that all remains may be capable of being identified someday, officials suggest. Furthermore, through similar DNA comparisons, some Korean War remains have been recently identified and “in a few isolated incidents,” remains from World War II have been identified, said Ed Huffine, of the Armed Forces DNA Laboratory.

Asked if he saw any circumstance in the future where the tomb might be disturbed again to test the remains of soldiers of wars earlier than Vietnam, Huffine said, “I do not.”

Blassie's A-37 fighter was shot down around An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. The Pentagon plans to return the remains to his family, for reburial in St. Louis this summer.

“We are finally going to bring Michael home,” sister Patricia Blassie, 39, told reporters outside the home of Blassie's mother, Jean, in Florissant, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.

Cohen said he had spoken to Mrs. Blassie Tuesday morning. Despite the anguish felt by her family and others, “this does bring a measure of closure,” he said.

Even as Cohen made the official announcement on Blassie, the Pentagon issued a statement announcing that the remains of two other American servicemen previously unaccounted for in Southeast Asia had been identified — and are being returned to their families for burial.

They were identified as Marine Corps Capt. John B. Sherman of Darien, Conn., and Army Staff Sgt. Robert F. Preiss Jr. of Cornwall, N.Y.

On March 25, 1966, Sherman was dive-bombing enemy positions in Quang Ngai Province when his F-8E Crusader was struck by enemy ground fire. The plane crashed in Quang Nam-Da Nang Province, the Pentagon said.

Preiss was the leader of a reconnaissance team that came under enemy fire in Laos on May 12, 1970. A recovery team at the time failed to recover his body, the statement said.

Meanwhile, a missing-in-action activist group, the National Alliance of Families, challenged the accuracy of the DNA testing used by the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii to identify the remains of Blassie and others.

It called for an immediate investigation. “We demand a halt to all burials until the investigation is complete,” the group said in a statement.

Asked about such accusations, Cohen said he was convinced “there is a 99.9 percent degree of certainty” that the remains were those of Blassie.

“There was a senior working group that has examined this particular case and found that there was no evidence to support any attempt on the part of the Pentagon or the Defense Department to in any way manipulate this,” he said.

Cohen was asked about the Medal of Honor that President Reagan awarded in 1984 to the Vietnam Unknown.

The Air Force will study the legalities involved, but it seems unlikely the Blassie family will get to keep that medal, Cohen suggested. “My understanding was that the medal was awarded for the benefit of all of those who remained unknown.”

However, Cohen noted that Blassie also had been “awarded the Silver Star posthumously to reflect his bravery in the course of his duties.”

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