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DNA testing may make tomb rites obsolete

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As the family of 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie prepared at last to bury him, 14 years after his remains were placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns, Defense Secretary William Cohen said on Tuesday that it was unlikely the nation would ever again have to lay an unknown serviceman to rest.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Cohen said new genetic tests - not available when Blassie's remains were declared unknown and placed in the tomb, at Arlington National Cemetery - had brought the government much closer to its promise to account fully for those who died or disappeared during the Vietnam War."I could be proven wrong," Cohen said, "but it would seem to me that given the state of the art today, it's unlikely" that any further remains, from either Vietnam or any future war, will ever lie in the tomb.

But if Cohen's remarks signaled the end of a military tradition that was widely established after World War I, and has roots that are even older, his formal announcement that the remains removed from the tomb were Blassie's ended one family's long wait for answers. The lieutenant, a 24-year-old Air Force pilot, was shot down over South Vietnam on May 11, 1972, and had since been officially considered missing in action.

In Florissant, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Blassie's mother, Jean, gathered her surviving children together and expressed relief that they would be able to "bring him home." Blassie and her family had urged the Pentagon to test the remains - a total of six bones - ever since 1994, when a newsletter, The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, first raised questions about whose they were.

Although Cohen announced the identification on Tuesday, three independent consultants hired by him must still verify the results of the Pentagon's investigation and the genetic tests that made identification possible. At that point, the Armed Forces Identification Review Board, which oversees the grim task of formally identifying war dead, must make a final determination.

The identification of the remains has, as expected, raised the question of whether they should be replaced in the tomb by other Vietnam remains, which would have to be not only unidentified but also unidentifiable, even given the new genetic tests.

The Blassies want to have Michael's remains buried in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis on July 11, when a tombstone will replace a white marker bearing his name.

"He was good at everything he tried to do," his mother said.

George Blassie said his brother inspired: "He was a mentor. He was a hero. He deserves to be known."