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Veterans Divided on Exhuming Remains in Tomb of Unknowns

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

In an echo of controversies from years past, veterans groups are sharply divided on whether the Tomb of the Unknowns should be opened to examine whether Vietnam-era remains are those of a downed Air Force pilot.

As the Pentagon considers whether to disturb the revered site, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars are recommending that the government move cautiously before testing the remains to see if they belong to Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, as his family and some activists believe. But these groups' newer brother, the Vietnam Veterans of America, is urging a swift examination and quick resolution of the issue.

The emerging division is likely to make the Pentagon's sensitive decision all the more agonizing. And it mirrors differences among veterans in the 1970s and 1980s, when controversy swirled around the Carter and Reagan administrations' efforts to find and inter an officially unknown Vietnam-era veteran at the Arlington National Cemetery site to help heal the war's wounds.

The question of whether to open the crypt emerged this week, with Blassie's family members saying they believe evidence collected after Blassie was shot down strongly indicates that the remains are his.

In 1972, South Vietnamese reconnaissance troops collected human bones, two ID cards with Blassie's name and other items after the Missouri-born flyer was shot down at An Loc, about 60 miles north of Saigon. The remains weren't sufficient to provide positive identification of Blassie at the time, but because of advances in DNA testing, some analysts believe a test could now conclusively determine whether the remains are Blassie's.

Sara Bernasconi, an official of the Vietnam Veterans of America's POW-MIA committee, said identification of remains should be the top priority, and noted that President Clinton himself has such efforts a top national goal.

"I definitely think the tomb should be opened," said Bernasconi, of Albuquerque, whose husband was declared missing in action. "We would be terribly remiss if we didn't bring some resolution and peace to a veteran's family."