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Vietnam: Forensic Scientists Identified American Buried In Tomb Of Unknowns

Washington, 1 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The remains of an American soldier from the Vietnam War that were buried in the nation's most hallowed grave -- The Tomb of the Unknowns -- are a mystery no longer.

U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced Tuesday that the remains, previously classified as unknown by the U.S. military, are actually those belonging to Air Force pilot, First Lieutenant Michael Blassie.

Blassie was 24 when his jet was shot down on May 11, 1972 around the southern Vietnamese city of An Loc. Blassie had already completed 137 combat missions at the time.

The U.S. military initially believed the remains to be Blassie's because of accompanying physical evidence that was recovered from the crash site, including a military identification card and part of a flight suit.

But further scientific testing conducted in 1978 indicated the remains did not match Blassie's physical measurements. Moreover, much of the initial physical evidence that had originally accompanied the remains had been lost. As there was not enough evidence to confirm a positive identification, the remains were reclassified as unknown.

Those remains were interred into the Tomb of the Unknowns -- located just outside of Washington in Arlington National Cemetery -- during an emotional ceremony in 1984 presided over by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

But Blassie's family never accepted the military's conclusion. They continued to press for exhumation and further examination of the remains as technology and techniques in DNA testing improved.

This year, after intense debate between a Department of Defense panel chosen to review the matter, members of the U.S. Congress and a variety of veteran's groups, Secretary Cohen finally decided to exhume the remains.

The ceremony took place on May 14.

During the proceedings, Cohen explained: "In reaching my decision, I weighed two fundamental concerns -- respect for the sanctity of the Tomb of the Unknowns and our national commitment to the fullest possible accounting of service members missing in defense of our country.... I have concluded that we must honor our commitment to attempt to locate and identify the remains of all Americans lost in combat."

The Tomb of the Unknowns is one of America's most revered sites. It was unveiled in April 1932 and holds the remains of a serviceman killed in France during World War I. Adjacent to it lie the remains of unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and -- until recently -- the Vietnam War.

The figures and carvings on the tomb are intricate and symbolic. The east side of the tomb, which faces Washington, D.C., contains a scene depicting the figures of Peace holding a dove, Victory, holding a palm branch, and Valor, holding a sword. The meaning: Peace through victory by valor.

On the west side of the tomb an inscription reads: "Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But to God."

The Tomb is guarded around the clock, rain or snow, by a group of elite soldiers called sentinels. The changing of the guard, a ceremony in which the guards are relieved, is a popular tourist draw.

However, now that there are no remains entombed in America's sacred shrine for an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War, the question remains whether or not to inter a new set of remains.

Cohen told reporters Tuesday that he needed to consult with members of Congress, the White House, veteran's organizations and other authorities to determine what to do next.

Said Cohen: "It may be that forensic science has reached a point where there will be no other unknowns in any war."