January 19, 2009
The Story of the Unknown Soldier
by Ron Nydam, Ph.D.
In June of 1998 a headline in the Rocky Mountain News read, "DNA Yields Identity of Unknown Soldier." The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the Potomac River, holds the remains of several soldiers from both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Fourteen years ago then President Reagan presided over the burial of the remains of a serviceman killed in South Vietnam whose identity was not known. DNA testing that could have determined the man's identity was not available at that time. This past summer a sample of mitochondrial DNA scraped from a pelvic bone matched the blood sample given by Jean Blassie, mother of First Lt. Michael Blassie, an Air Force pilot whose A-37 jet had crashed in flames near the Cambodian border, on May 11, 1972. Five months later, South Vietnamese soldiers recovered his remains: four ribs, his right humerus, and part of his pelvic bone. But tests in Hawaii could not conclusively match these fragments to Blassie and the bones were classified as unknown in origin. Blassie was listed as missing in action in Vietnam. In a solemn, symbolic state funeral, President Reagan laid these bones to rest in the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day, 1984, 12 years after Blassie's death. Today Michael's bones lie buried in St. Louis, next to the grave of his father, George (a World War II veteran who died in 1991). Now the bones have a name.
It was all of interest to me. The Tomb of the Unknowns is a sacred place, the centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery, one of our national memorials to soldiers who died for the "cause" of our country. If you are "unknown" you represent everybody-all 2,087 MIA's from the Vietnam War. These bones were placed in the Tomb to remind us of the unknowns. He was the son of our country; he was related to all of us. (His bones reminded me of my high school friend, Len Chesley, who played baseball with me. Len died of a grenade blast running from one foxhole to another with medical supplies.) Our nation appropriately honors, even glorifies the Tomb; we are reverent before the markers of sons and daughters who died for our country. They gave their lives for the good of America... even if Vietnam was not such a "good" war.
But now, we as a nation took the bones out of the Tomb. We gave them a name, Michael, and a family, the Blassies. In so doing, we healed a wound. Jean and George are real people in the pages of history who had a real son, Michael, who sadly flew his fighter jet in a fireball into the ground near the Cambodian border. His bones were moved from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis, from a nameless national memorial to an ordinary family plot. Do we see what happened? We tampered with the Shrine to the unknowns because we gave the bones their name. Our nation could no longer consider Michael's four ribs, humerus and pelvic bones as without a name, without identity. These bones became real to his mother 26 years after Michael's death. He was once again a real person, a son who really died on May 11, 1992. And Jean, his mother, could stand over his grave and weep tears that every mother weeps with the loss of a child. Michael Blassie was not only identified by the DNA match with Jean's blood sample; if anyone looked further Michael could also be found in his mother's heart.
I was thankful! As a country we did the right thing... though the Pentagon obscured his bones for years. "If we give Michael's bones their identity, we may have to do the same thing with all the other bones in the Tomb of the Unknowns! All the bones will get their names...and pretty soon there will be no bones in the Tomb of the Unknowns." Well, what a wonderful day that would be! Every bone deserves its name!
In our American society the adoptee is, in part, the Unknown Soldier...a warrior, fighting for the greater cause of human dignity, but unknown, marching without a name. I am referring specifically to the part of the adoptee that cannot be relinquished and adopted, no matter how much their caring adoptive parents love them. This is the part of the adoptee's self which, historically in the closed adoption system, has been buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns. But this is a soldier, male or female, a fighter who struggles to stay alive despite all the mortar fire of people like Bill Pierce and others supporting the proposed Uniform Adoption Act who want to keep the bones in the Tomb unknown so that adoption can be glorified in a way that even harms adoption. (The practice of adoption must be honest about the names of the bones sealed in closed court record tombs.) Adoptees are the Unknown Soldiers who must fight their way through the barrage of everyone else's opinion about who they should be. The temptation for many is to duck, to compromise self, to sacrifice the need for identity and just obey orders. But the mission, the right mission-sometimes Mission Impossible-is to go to battle for the right to know your name, your heritage, your whole story. And for birth parents, as for Michael's mother, Jean, it is better to grieve at the grave of your son with his name etched in granite than to forever wonder about bones buried in an unknown tomb.
The adoptee foot soldier is faced with complex challenges which are unique to adoptive development. Yes, the relinquished and adopted person probably marches to the beat of a different drummer...and probably for good reason. It may look like everything is okay. It may look like compliance to parental orders. But, if we watch carefully, and walk closely by, and listen to the heartbeat of the adoptee, we will notice that something more is going on. Sometimes these soldiers even go AWAL because they hear something else...off in the distance in birth parent land.
Travis was one little soldier who will probably always remember the day that he marched. It was a humid Saturday evening when almost everyone in a northwest Iowa town gathered for a benefit in the local concert hall. At age eight Travis sat in the front row of the small auditorium with his friends and a bag of popcorn. His adoptive parents were sitting towards the back with the rest of nearly all the adults in town. Halfway through the concert the singers stopped to dedicate a song to all the boys and girls in the world who did not have parents. The reference was to the children of the back country villages of Uganda where the adult HIV infection rate is as high as 80%. But Travis heard it differently. He put down his bag of popcorn and, with tears running down his cheeks, walked back up the middle aisle in search of his parents. He curled up in his mother's lap and wept, telling her, "Mom, I miss my birth mother." Wisely, supporting his grief, his mother responded, "Honey, I know you do."
When relinquished and adopted little soldiers reach the age of seven or eight, they master the ability to conceptualize, to "get" an idea...like relinquishment. Usually, at that age, they experience some depression when they figure out the reality of the existence of their ghost birth parents. And, normally, they grieve. And adoptive parents are the resources that adoptees turn to, if they can, to do their grieving. But their grieving is normal-an additional developmental challenge for the adoptee foot soldier. If, however, relinquished and adopted children are taught not to grieve, but, instead, to make believe, as our society does, that relinquishment doesn't make a difference, then the adoptee is left feeling confused and partial, not fully self-honest or fully real. Many soldiers know that "you cannot fix a problem if you say it is not there." The grief is there.
And what about marching without dogtags? For most of us in the non-adopted world, our identities are understood, known, and, for better or worse, accepted. But living with unknown identities, as many adoptee foot soldiers have been called to do, makes the road ahead less clear. It is difficult to know where you are going if you are not sure of who you are. What are the genetic givens? What are you good at? What ailments may come your way? What do you know of your parents' professions, skills, and talents? The closed adoption system has, for the last 50 years, kept the answers to those questions locked up in sealed courtroom records. So missing pieces of one's story are a problem. "Unknown" is a dangerous word. It is only when we really know about ourselves that we can forget about ourselves and move forward toward getting to know others. As long as our identities are on front stage, as is normal in adolescence, our attention to others gets compromised. It should come as no surprise that relinquished and adopted adolescents are over-represented in clinical populations in hospitals across our country. Again, it is normal for them to struggle when they know less about themselves than they need to know to be happy.
But there's more. Adoptees often have to march along taking in a negative piece of their personal histories as part of their identities. Unlike many of us in the non-adopted infantry, relinquished and adopted persons have to mold their identities out of stories of relinquishment, sometimes feeling like a mistake in time, unwanted, or optional. It is no easy task to march along without a clear sense of personal importance which gives confidence to fight the battles. But adoptees, often too "unknown" for their own good, are called forward to do so. Another extra challenge along the way.
There are days when relinquished and adopted people walk alone, without the rhythm and beat of a marching army. We all, adopted and non-adopted alike, avoid deep connections if we have trouble with trust. If our lives start out with breaks in attachment, then it is quite understandable that we might be gun-shy in the battle for closeness with others. Adoptees, for example, may struggle with relinquishment sensitivity, being fearful of taking risks because the sting of rejection has painful echoes from the past. If being relinquished is the organizing principle by which we guide our relationships, then our ways of relating to others, especially those we may love romantically, may be preconsciously loaded with conflict. We may avoid close connections with others altogether in order to do "an end run" around ever getting relinquished again. Or we may arrange close relationships in order to recapitulate the primal rejection. We may relinquish our mates because of an underlying belief that they will leave us, or hang on in very dependant ways to avoid rejection, or treat our mates in such a fashion that sooner or later they relinquish us. Intimate relationships always encounter problems, but, for adoptees, these problems may relate especially to the unresolved pain that often accompanies relinquishment...even if it is at less-than-conscious levels.
When Tom, the adoptee foot soldier, found himself "falling" for his 27-year-old secretary, though not in a sexual way, his wife threw the Rolodex at him and the next day dragged him into a counseling office. He did not know why his secretary had come to mean so much to him, but she had. Traditional marriage counseling did little to change things. After three months, Tom knew more about his adoptive history...but still "loved" his secretary. It was only when he brought in his 41-year-old adoption papers and read that his birth mother was 27 years old when she gave birth to him that Tom began his grieving of the mother he never knew. Unknown is a dangerous word. He had never mourned the loss of his birth parents. He had wished to leave his wife/adoptive mother and return to his secretary/birth mother. Interpretation of this painful reality slowly brought peace to Tom's conflicted marriage. Search and reunion with his birth mother helped more. If adoptees do not courageously deal with the pain of relinquishment, it often shows up in the middle of "love." Makes marching forward more difficult.
Fantasy and Reality
Sigmund Freud, one of the great generals in the army of psychology, suggested a hundred years ago that it is normal for children growing up to make believe that they are really from another family, a royal family, which would treat them with much more kindness and honor than the parents at home do. He called this the (other) "family romance fantasy" and suggested that it was a way that children used to deal with their anger at their parents as well as slowly separate from them. But what happens when the (other) "family romance" is real, meaning that there are real but "ghost" parents out there? The adoptee is left wondering about the reality of who these people are. No wonder adoptees often report rich fantasy lives about the who and what of their birth parents as well as about the why of relinquishment. Their fantasies connect them in important ways to their birth parents, keeping connection and hope for more reality with them alive. More to carry along the way as these foot soldiers grow up.
One relinquished and adopted adult recalls imagining that her birth mother was the president of a big company in Omaha. Another imagined the opposite-that her birth mother was a waitress in a greasy spoon restaurant. The first "borrowed" goodness in terms of her own self-image by making up a presidential mother. The second kept her birth mother at a distance, seeing her low in life, "not amounting to much." But our point is that regardless of how birth parents may be valued in imagination, they are significant. And adoptees need to know the truth about their birth histories in order to feel fully real. Ask them. Even bad news is good news because it is real news.
These challenges are the marching orders for adoptee foot soldiers, the Unknown Soldiers of our day. They each have to do the march of grieving, of identity formation, of managing intimacy, and resolving fantasy into as much reality as possible. With heart and soul they keep fighting for a sense of belonging and being complete as persons in the Great War on secrecy and denial and a society that, at least historically, does not even want to know that the Battle is going on. "We disavow any knowledge of their secret selves" are the words from the top. So they fight alone, without the backup of the very community that commissioned them, in adoption, to "figure things out and make their lives work." These Unknown Soldiers, who are battling for the wholeness of the next generation, need the Pentagon behind them. There are 47 states to go!
Now, back to Michael's bones buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns, resurrected to their original identity and brought to St. Louis to lie with the bones of his father. Every bone deserves its name. The truth is that bones come back to life when they have identities. So it is with the foot bones and the back bones and the heart bones of adoptees. Give them a name and they come back to life. The hidden and the unknown become seen and known and real in the light of the day of open records. Then, finally, soldiers can lay down their arms and be at peace with all the pieces of history. The Unknown Soldiers become the known sons and daughters of known mothers and fathers. And they no longer have to fight.
This article is a summary of an address made at the American Adoption Congress Southern Conference in Orlando, Florida, October 1998. Ron Nydam is the director of Michigan Adoption Dynamics and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Calvin Theological Seminary. His book, Adoptees Come Of Age: The Emotional and Spiritual Struggle with Relinquishment, will be published in August 1999 by Westminster/John Knox Press.