From a contemporary press report: February 26, 1999

The tomb of the unknown soldier from the Vietnam War is likely to stand empty, because technological advances have made it impossible to guarantee that anyone buried there would remain unknown, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Military officials have recommended to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen that no new remains be sought for the crypt at Arlington National Cemetery, which has been vacant since May 15. The man who had been buried there since 1984 was identified by new genetic testing techniques as Lt. Michael Blassie, after he was exhumed under pressure from the Blassie family.

“Given the advances in DNA analysis techniques, I don't think we'll be able to have complete confidence that any set of remains . . . would remain unknown forever,” said Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon. “So we would face another Michael Blassie situation. We want to avoid that. It was painful. It was awkward.”

More than 2,000 Vietnam-era soldiers remain missing, and an Army laboratory is working on identifying several hundred sets of remains. The new DNA analysis means that it is theoretically possible to identify virtually any recovered body if the military can find likely living relatives and compare their genetic material, officials said.

That's what has been happening with the remains being repatriated from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, including two Army soldiers being buried at Arlington this morning. Capt. Thaddeus E. Williams Jr. and Spec. 5 James Schimberg have been missing since their helicopter went down over Phu Yen province in Vietnam in 1966, and the Army lab was recently able to link them conclusively to remains brought back to this country in 1993, Army officials said.

Cohen has not made a formal decision about what to do with the crypt, one of four representing the unknown soldiers of both world wars, Korea and Vietnam, Bacon said. But Pentagon officials are considering leaving it in place and adding an inscription that would explain why it is empty and what it represents, he said.

Such a decision would please officials of the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group with nearly 3 million members.

“We recommend that a plaque be installed at the crypt reading, ‘In honor of, and keeping faith with, America's missing servicemen from the Vietnam War,' ” said John Sommer, executive director of the group's Washington office.

Sommers said that while the group would support putting a truly unknown soldier in the tomb, it wants to make sure that potentially identifiable remains are not erroneously put there. “We don't want to prohibit any family from being able to put to rest their loved ones,” he said.

For their part, the 2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars is on record asking that “the U.S. Government make every effort to inter one of our unknown honored dead from the Vietnam War” at the Tomb.

But spokesman Bill Smith said the VFW recognizes that the new identification techniques could make that problematic.

“We have a tomb there that is vacant that represents a significant period in our history . . . but we don't want to have another situation were we have to disinter somebody,” Smith said. “It's putting people through too much grief.”

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