Vietnam Unknown Crypt To Remain Empty

Courtesy of the United States Department of Defense: June 17, 1999

Remains of an unknown American serviceman from the Vietnam War will not be placed in the crypt at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery unless it can be proved they will never be identified.

Given the continuing advances in forensic medicine, the DoD announcement June 17, 1999 means it is highly unlikely that remains will ever again be interred in the crypt of the Vietnam Unknown.

“In making this decision, I want to renew the Department of Defense's pledge to the loved ones of those still missing from the Vietnam conflict,” Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said. “The federal government and the department will continue to strive for the fullest possible accounting for all our servicemen who fought for our nation in that conflict and did not return.”

Cohen's decision resolves issues raised in 1998, when DoD removed the remains of the Vietnam Unknown for a mitochondrial DNA test, said Charles Cragin, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The test, created after the Vietnam Unknown was interred in 1984, proved the remains were those of Air Force First Lieutenant  Michael Joseph Blassie.

A DoD study group directed by Rudy deLeon, personnel and readiness undersecretary, recommended after the Blassiecase that no remains be interred “unless, and until such time as, it can be unequivocally assured, in perpetuity, that the remains of the American serviceman would be
forever unidentifiable.”

Forensic experts at the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the Armed Forces DNA Lab in Rockville, Maryland, told the group no remains DoD has or is likely to recover meet that standard.

Army personnel officials said the Hawaii lab has about 170 sets of remains from Southeast Asia. Cragin said advances in science could make it possible one day for all those remains to be identified.

To choose an appropriate honor for those service members still missing, DoD consulted with members of Congress, representatives of veterans groups and family members of the Vietnam missing. As a result of this process, Cohen authorized an inscription on the Vietnam Unknown crypt  cover which will read, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen,  1958-1975.” Cohen will dedicate the inscription September 17, 1999 during POW/MIA Day ceremonies.

“The Tomb of the Unknowns is really a national shrine,” Cragin said. “It represents the contribution of every American. More so, it represents [a symbolic place of  interment] to the families of each and every American serviceman who has not been returned.”

He said the decision will not affect the remains of the Unknowns from World War I, World War II and the Korean War that are also at the site. Even with new technologies, Cragin said, scientists must be able to limit the number of people whose DNA is being compared. In the case of Blassie,  for instance, officials knew where the remains were found and, after studying combat records, limited their focus and tests to the relatives of just seven missing men.

There is no feasible way to do that kind of detective work for the other Unknowns, so they will truly remain “Known but to God,” Cragin said.

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