Pentagon favors exhuming a man’s body for identification

WASHINGTON (AP) — Remains of the Vietnam veteran in the Tomb of the Unknowns should be exhumed to determine if they belong to a downed Air Force pilot as his family believes, a Pentagon panel said Monday.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said he will decide in the next two weeks whether to grant the request of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie’s family to have the remains exhumed for possible identification.
“All we ever wanted was an answer: Is that Michael Blassie or not?” said Pat Blassie, his sister and family spokeswoman. “And we truly believe it is.”
Cohen said he would not decide until his general counsel investigates whether there’s any legal obstacle to the exhumation — something Pentagon officials said they don’t foresee. In any case, he told reporters, “I’ll have an answer for you in about a week or two.”
Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said a senior Pentagon working group he led determined after a four-month investigation that the remains — the pelvis, right upper arm and four ribs — should be exhumed.
“There are concerns about the sanctity of the Tomb, but I think on balance everyone came down to what is right,” Cragin said of the recommendation. “And what is right is to utilize the technology that exists to attempt to identify these remains.”
The Vietnam remains were placed in the Tomb at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., in 1984. In separate crypts, guarded 24 hours a day, there are also unidentified remains from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
Circumstantial physical evidence found with the Vietnam remains indicates they could be those of the St. Louis pilot, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972, Cragin said. However, other evidence including blood type and physical characteristics — based on old forensic methods — don’t match, he said.
The uncertainty led Pentagon officials to decide the only way to know if they were Blassie’s was to examine them using the latest scientific methods, including sophisticated mitochondrial DNA matching, Cragin said.
In theory, the remains could belong to eight other Air Force or Army fighter and helicopter pilots who went down in the An Loc area the same time as Blassie but whose bodies were never found, the Defense Department said.
Older forensic evidence indicated the remains were of a man aged 26-33, between 5-foot-5{ and 5-foot-11{ tall, and with type O negative blood. Blassie, who was about six feet tall and age 24, had type A positive blood.
Of the nine, Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot from Ohio, most closely matched the forensic evidence from the remains, according to Cragin. He was 5-foot-9 and 30 years old with type O negative blood. Strobridge crashed the same day as Blassie. But Cragin said other evidence found with the remains makes it unlikely they are from Strobridge, including an A-37 ejection seat, parachute and life raft — things his AH-1 Cobra helicopter didn’t have.
Cragin didn’t name other pilots, citing privacy of the families.
If Blassie is identified, Cragin said the government’s forensic identification lab in Hawaii has several more unidentified Vietnam remains that may be placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department has contacted families of all nine service members whose remains are in question. All plan to cooperate, including by providing DNA samples from the maternal line of the family for identification purposes.
Some weren’t enthusiastic to reopen old wounds, Cragin said.
“A number of these families have certainly made peace with themselves,” he said. “They know in their heart of hearts where their loved one is.”
The investigation into the Tomb of the Unknowns began in January after questions were raised about the Pentagon’s decision to bury the Vietnam remains despite physical evidence linking them to Blassie, including personal identification and other effects found with them. His family hadn’t been aware of such evidence.
But Cragin said the current investigation showed Defense officials were correct to rule the remains unidentifiable since they didn’t match Blassie’s blood or body type. The old blood typing used is only 67 percent reliable under good circumstances, Cragin said.