Congress set to order the repatriation of 13 American sailors killed in Libya — against the Navy’s wishes

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The bodies of 13 American sailors killed in Tripoli may soon be coming home.

This week the Senate is considering an amendment sponsored by Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller to repatriate the remains of the sailors killed when the USS Intrepid exploded in Tripoli’s harbor during the First Barbary War in 1804.

The legislation would mandate that the Department of Defense exhume and identify the sailors’ remains — then bury them in a cemetery close to a living relative. Any unidentified remains would be interred in the Tomb of the Unknown. According to Heller, some of the sailors are interned in mass graves.

“Our nation has a responsibility to make sure that any fallen member of the Armed Forces is treated with respect,” Heller said in a statement. “For more than two hundred years, these sailors have laid to rest in a cemetery on foreign soil. It’s past time that we give these men a proper military burial in the country they died defending.”

Similar legislation, sponsored by Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers and New Jersey Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo, passed the House in May.

While the issue would seem uncontroversial, the U.S. Navy has long opposed the idea of repatriation for these men.

In a memo issued last week, Navy Legislative Liaison, Lieutenant Commander Chris Brianas explained that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert concurs with long-held Navy policy arguing that Tripoli is the sailors’ final resting place — especially given that in 1949 the Navy held a formal memorial service for the men.

Brianas noted that the Department of Defense supports the Navy’s decision — specifically, it opposes interning the remains of the sailors killed in wars prior to World War I in the Tomb of the Unknown. Additionally, Brianas pointed out the high cost of repatriation, estimated to be between eighty-five and one hundred thousand dollars.

“Also, please be advised that the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, which was tasked to provide a CBO estimate, has estimated the direct costs will total $85-100K. This includes travel and per diem for JPAC personnel, equipment rental, local labor, air freight/baggage fees, and contingency costs,” he wrote. “This does not include costs associated with DNA testing and analysis by Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), which is too difficult to estimate as it is not known what amount/nature of material is available. Nor does it include the cost for the Navy to contract out genealogical research since potential remains identification will depend on DNA analysis.”

Despite the Navy’s opposition, veterans groups have been pushing for repatriation for years.

“When my squad and I fought in Fallujah, we drew added courage in combat from knowing our nation leaves no man behind,” Intrepid Project spokesman, retired Staff Sergent David Bellavia wrote in a letter to supporters Monday. “Millions of other men and women counted on that pledge of honor, too, as they fought to defend our great nation.”

The advocates are likely to win this battle. The amendment has been passed through the Armed Services Committee and, in the next two days, is expected to be considered in a block of uncontroversial amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Update: Heller’s office confirmed Wednesday that Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain has withdrawn his support for Heller’s amendment based on the Navy’s opposition. Without McCain’s support the amendment can no longer be bundled in the block of uncontroversial amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act. The Intrepid Project and Sen. Heller’s office told TheDC that they will continue to press to find other avenues to get the legislation passed.

“I’m disappointed that the effort to bring these sailors home has stalled in the Senate.  However, I’m committed to making sure these fallen sailors receive the recognition they deserve and will continue working with my colleagues until this legislation becomes law,” Sen. Heller told TheDC.

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