The famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, routinely visited by U.S. Presidents on Memorial Day, is intended as a testament to the selflessness, courage and sacrifice of our armed servicemen and women. And in fact, it is more accurately referred to as the Tomb of the Unknowns, as it has become the final resting place for veterans of several foreign wars.
But for one of these veterans and his family, the destination was hardly restful. The honor and anonymity that come with internment at this Arlington Cemetery monument were first granted in 1921 to four casualties of World War I. They are indeed unknown, as are the soldiers who were disinterred from several cemeteries around the world and placed in the tomb in remembrance of World War II and the Korean War.
It wasn't until the postscript of the Vietnam War that a solider whose identity was fairly knowable was designated for internment as an unknown. According to an article in the Washington Post, Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie was shot down over Vietnam and—through a sequence of events that included bureaucratic bungling, forensic irregularity, and the political imperatives that come with an election year—became “unknown” in an official military capacity. This was in 1984, and was precipitated in no small part by President Reagan's desire, on the cusp of reelection, to make a public display of honoring those who fought and perished in Vietnam. The goal, some observers suggest, was to find a positive way of putting the entire sad historical chapter in the past where it belonged.
Blassie's family pressed the military for years for an explanation on the whereabouts of his remains, without any indication that their beloved son and brother had become an “unknown” symbol of military sacrifice. It took the work of a POW/MIA activist named Ted Sampley to pursue the case of misbegotten identity, finally pressing the U.S. military to acknowledge Blassie in 1998. His remains were consequently exhumed, DNA tested and sent to his sister for re-internment at a family plot.
The tomb for the Vietnam Unknown remains empty, and foretells of the monument's likely future. Indeed, advances in our scientific understanding of DNA have made it increasingly unlikely that soldiers lost in battle will ever again suffer the fate of either being unknown or, as in Blassie's case, knowingly anonymized.