The Mystery Of The Tomb

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  1. DonaldN

    DonaldN New Member

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    Questions About The Vietnam `Unknown Soldier' Raise A New Issue: With Dna Testing, Can We Ever Fill The Crypt?
    Joshua Hammer
    Updated: 1:14 PM ET Jan 14, 2008

    THE DEAD DO TELL TALES. UNDER fluorescent lights at the Army's main forensic laboratory in Hawaii, a team of anthropologists huddles over 15 foam-topped tables piled with human bones. On one table lie the rodent-chewed femurs and pelvises of 11 airmen who perished when their B-17 bomber crashed in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in 1944. A few feet away sits a bowl of blackened shards--all that's left of the pilot whose fighter jet went down in a ball of flame over Laos a generation later. Three nearly intact skeletons lie nearby, World War II GIs disinterred this year from the island of Okinawa. Slowly, the experts examine teeth, reassemble skulls and hunt for genetic codes in a quest to attach names to these remains. ""Our capabilities have improved tremendously,'' says Lt. Col. Brion Smith, an Army forensic odontologist. ""There are fewer and fewer mysteries left out there.''

    In Washington, that's becoming increasingly clear. A Pentagon panel is poised to recommend that the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery be opened. The reason: its most recently enshrined set of remains may not be unknown. This follows allegations that the identity of the Vietnam War serviceman whose bones lie in the crypt was deliberately withheld by military officials under pressure to consecrate a Vietnam memorial 14 years ago. The controversy has drawn new attention to the rapid advances in forensic science that are making the notion of the ""unknown soldier'' obsolete. It has also cast a spotlight on Hawaii's Central Identification Laboratory, or ""Cilhi'' in military speak, ground zero in the Pentagon's effort to provide a full accounting of its war dead.

    The strange case of the not-so-unknown soldier began on May 11, 1972, when First Lt. Michael J. Blassie, 24, was shot down in his A-37B Strike aircraft near An Loc, South Vietnam. Blassie's ejector seat, flight suit, wallet and dog tags--along with a handful of bones--were recovered by a South Vietnamese Army patrol five months later. The remains, labeled BTB Blassie, Michael Joseph, were shipped to the laboratory in Hawaii for identification. Tests, however, revealed that the blood type didn't match Blassie's, and the skeletal fragments appeared to belong to a Caucasian male several years older and taller than the pilot. Perplexed, investigators determined that eight other fliers had crashed in the area during the same battle, but found only one whose characteristics might match those of the remains: Capt. Rodney Strobridge, 30, whose Cobra went down two miles from the site of Blassie's wreck. But nothing else found with the bones matched Strobridge. So the remains were relabeled ""X-26,'' meaning identity unknown. In 1984, as President Reagan sought to enshrine a Vietnam unknown, the Pentagon scrambled to find a suitable set of remains for burial. X-26 was their only choice.

    Earlier this year, however, a CBS report, following up a story in a veterans' paper, named Blassie as the ""unknown'' soldier and charged that the Pentagon had engaged in a cover-up. The Pentagon launched a probe that unearthed Strobridge's name. Officials consulted with Congress and with veterans' groups last week. The panel is expected to tell Defense Secretary William Cohen that opening the crypt is the only way to put the matter to rest. ""The primary issue,'' says Charlie Craigin, the official who oversaw the panel, ""is the sanctity of the Tomb [versus] our national commitment for a full accounting of missing in action.''

    Fulfilling that commitment begins in a one-story stucco building at Hickam Air Force Base outside Honolulu. Since 1976, its staff of 177 soldiers and civilians has found and identified hundreds of soldiers from World War II, Korea and Southeast Asia. But Vietnam is the lab's most politically sensitive mission. The first expeditions to recover the 2,100 soldiers missing in Southeast Asia were launched a decade ago. In 1992 the Vietnamese government allowed the U.S. military to set up an investigative office in Hanoi. Because of the high speed of Vietnam plane crashes, the searches often yield nothing but a few fistfuls of bone. Even so, the lab has so far identified 494 sets of human remains from Southeast Asia.

    Attaching names to even the tiniest bone fragments has grown easier. In 1992 the U.S. military began analyzing remains for mitochondrial DNA, a marker that's shared by all members of a family's maternal lineage. Unlike nucleic DNA, a highly individualized genetic code that is found only in blood and tissue, mitochondrial DNA can remain intact inside bones and teeth for centuries. Forensic anthropologists in Hawaii typically cut away a postage-stamp-size piece of bone or scrape the ""pulp,'' or innermost layer, of a tooth. The sample is then sent to the military's DNA testing center in Rockville, Md. Provided that the DNA-rich calcium hasn't been destroyed by high temperatures--which can occur in fiery plane crashes--a positive ID can often be made in a few weeks. But the case isn't closed until after a complex review process, which takes between six months and two years. ""We need to be absolutely sure,'' says senior anthropologist Robert Mann. Increasingly, they are. Which means that the Pentagon may never find a permanent replacement to fill its soon-to-be-empty crypt.

    Thanks Nick,
    Semper Fi

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