On May 14th, the Vietnam War remains interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were disinterred and are now undergoing mtDNA and other testing in an effort to establish individual identification acceptable to the relevant family. The ultimate purpose of the Tomb of the Unknowns is to honor all unknowns and represent for the families of those missing, symbolizing the possibility that he could be their own. This sanctity relies on total anonymity concerning service, location of recovery, forensic information, etc. Media and other speculation as to who the Vietnam Unknown might be and where the remains were recovered destroyed the needed anonymity and was made worse through false assertions by CBS that there was a cover-up at the time of interment in 1984 and that they (CBS) knew through credible sources who was in the Tomb. Following this destruction of the anonymity of the Tomb, the U.S. Government appointed a high level Task Force which determined that the 1984 decision was made with integrity, but that there is now a reasonable possibility of identification using technology that did not exist in the early 1980s.
Due to the above circumstances and the fact that the purpose of the Tomb had been destroyed, the League Board of Directors unanimously supported Secretary Cohen's decision to disinter the remains to see if, using current technology, an individual identification was now possible. In view of mtDNA testing that is available now, and presumed advances in the future, the League strongly opposes interment of any Vietnam War remains in the Tomb. Recognizing the need to honor those who may never be accounted for, the League has recommended that a permanent plaque be formally dedicated at this site, inscribed: "Due to the advances in identification technology, the crypt for the Unknown from the Vietnam War lies empty. This site is dedicated forever in recognition of those still missing and their noble sacrifices for our nation."
As most Americans now know, Secretary of Defense William Cohen recently made the decision to disinter the Vietnam War crypt at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. During his brief remarks, Secretary Cohen stated, "We disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance. And we take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we cherish.
The League's Board of Directors met April 24th with Under Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Charles Cragin to hear the findings of the high level DoD Task Force charged by the Secretary of Defense with investigation of the facts. After meeting with the aforementioned and receiving a comprehensive briefing on the Task Force's findings, the Board unanimously took the positions outlined above.
The remains in the Vietnam War crypt were disinterred overnight on May 13th and officially removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns during a brief patriotic ceremony on May 14th, hosted by Secretary Cohen. The remains were taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center where a CILHI forensic anthropologist conducted a thorough examination, now completed, and a bone sample was provided to the Armed Forces mtDNA Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockford, Maryland. This overall identification process could take from three-six months to complete, possibly longer.
Congressional legislation passed in 1973 mandated interment of an unknown from the Vietnam War, but did not specify a date. Significant pressure from Vietnam veterans, major veterans organizations and Members of Congress to inter a Vietnam War unknown began in earnest in 1980-81. In response, the Department of Defense began evaluating the remains that were possible candidates then at the CILHI. The process began using precedent from previous wars, including selection of one set of remains from unidentified candidates and burial at sea of the remainder of the group from which the candidate was anonymously selected. The League, alerted by a media source, discovered that the ongoing interment process was not adequately considering the issue of the accounting for our missing men and immediately alerted the Reagan White House through the National Security Council (NSC).
At that time, there were only four potential candidates that were unidentified though, in CILHI's view, possibly identifiable in the future. Importantly, some of these remains had clear morphological characteristics that would allow identification, if all of the medical records of our POW/MIAs were available. The Reagan Administration had previously ordered a push for such records and, recognizing that the highest priority was to ensure that everything possible was done to identify the remains for the families, halted the process and set criteria that interment could not take place unless the remains were not identifiable, a far different criteria than not yet identified, and that any remains placed in the Tomb would not preclude identification if further remains of the unknown individual were recovered.
As records were obtained, an extensive forensic effort was again made, and two of the four remains were identified and returned to their families for honorable burial. (If the League and Reagan White House had not intervened to stop the process, three of the four sets of remains could have been buried at sea and answers forever lost to their families.) The third set of remains could not be confirmed as an American serviceman and, thus, did not meet the legal requirement that the candidate remains must be those of an unknown member of the U.S. Armed Forces. The fourth set of remains, designated as X-26, could not be positively correlated to any missing American with technology then available. Only in the early 1990's did mtDNA testing become part of the identification process.
Once fully briefed, the 1983-84 League Board of Directors supported interment, after first being assured that the remains were not identifiable, could not be positively correlated, forensically or otherwise, to any single individual, and that interment would not preclude accounting for anyone still missing if additional remains of the same individual were recovered. Further assurances were given in a letter to the League from President Reagan.
The attitude of senior Reagan officials during this timeframe was that real success meant we would never have an unknown to inter. The extensive investigation just undertaken by the DoD Task Force, under the direction of Under Secretary of Defense de Leon, reinforced the merit of the League's 1984 decision and the fact that all three criteria were met. The official DoD report outlines the extensive efforts undertaken before the 1984 decision to ensure that identification for a family would not be sacrificed to entomb an unknown, regardless of political pressure.
One of the hurdles to ensure that identification with mtDNA could be accomplished was whether adequate DNA could be extracted from the fragmentary remains. On June 11th, DoD announced that they felt they had recovered a good DNA sample. This critical first step was required before matching could begin with samples given by some of the families possibly involved. If individual identification can be made using technology that was not available in 1984, an American family will have an answer.
The League refuses to speculate on who may receive an answer, but notes that DoD feels two families are most likely beneficiaries. Now, despite whatever pressures may arise, the League must resist any further attempt to inter any Vietnam War remains in the Tomb. There are no qualified remains now at CILHI; too much is known about the circumstances of recovery, and further advances in technology are likely.
Now is the time for dedication of a permanent plaque to honor all Americans still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, an interim solution taken by the Reagan Administration after they halted initial efforts. From the League's founding in May, 1970, the family members of the League have recognized that there will never be a full and complete accounting; such is impossible in war. Our missing relatives are the only possible candidates for interment in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Scientific technology and identification capability have improved to the point that there should never again be an unknown to inter, including the fragmentary remains recently disinterred (if not identifiable) since they are not truly anonymous or representative of us all. Hopefully, the President and the Secretary of Defense will agree and take immediate action to place a permanent plaque as outlined above.
About CBS and Others:
Many of the facts concerning the thorough process and diligence that went into selecting an unknown in 1984 were known to CBS journalists at the time their coverage began in January, or shortly thereafter, but no mention was made of the extensive work that had taken place, that there were several possible candidates and that the White House had halted the process to ensure it was done correctly. Instead, CBS leveled accusations of cover-up and implied purposeful interment of remains that could have been identified as Lt. Michael Blassie. While the remains could be those of Lt. Blassie, USAF, they could also be one of many who were missing and unaccounted for in the area. CBS falsely asserted to the American people and, tragically, to the families that they, CBS, knew more about this complex question than others who knew the facts.
The recent coverage reminds one of the penchant by CBS, and others in the 1980's, to publicize conspiracy and cover-up theories on the issue, a tragedy that still hampers efforts to achieve the fullest possible accounting. With documents in hand, CBS knew that the League and the Reagan White House had stopped the premature push for interment, but didn't even bother to talk to the League or others directly involved who knew the facts until after two segments had been shown. Even after such conversation, CBS continued to distort the facts.
Others have criticized the 1984 decision based upon a wartime name-association with Lt. Blassie which was determined not to be supportable on a forensic basis years before the 1984 entombment. Some of these same critics had criticized CILHI for making false identifications to force accounting numbers up during this period. Now, they criticize CILHI for not forcing an identification with no forensic evidence. Further, at least one family sued the U.S. Government for recommending an identification on which there was far greater assurance of identity, including a chain of custody on the fragmentary remains. It may be assumed by these critics that they can have it both ways; the League can't afford such luxuries.