PERFORM `SACRED DUTY,' SENATORS SAY IN LETTER TO DEFENSE SECRETARY
Missouri Sens. Christopher S. Bond and John Ashcroft told the nation's military leaders Wednesday that they owe the St. Louis family of Lt. Michael Blassie an honest answer about his remains.
In a sharply worded letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen, the two Republican legislators said that the Blassie family has an “absolute right to the return of the remains of their son and brother” and that the Department of Defense has a “sacred duty” to comply.
Bond and Ashcroft demanded that Cohen supply “copies of all documents” pertaining to the Blassie case and supply “a list of documents that have been destroyed.” They called it a “matter of great urgency.”
In St. Louis, one of Blassie's sisters responded: “As a family, we're very encouraged.”
In an interview, Bond, who holds key positions on Senate defense panels, said the Pentagon appears to have violated “the most basic requirements of human decency and dignity.”
Defense officials responded that they are trying to unravel what happened so they can answer the many questions that have been raised and that they are “still putting together” the process to review decisions made over the past quarter-century.
“This thing came out of nowhere,” said one military official.
Cohen is traveling in Asia.
Reports this week indicated that remains of a Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery may be those of Blassie, a decorated Air Force hero shot down in May 1972 while flying over an enemy site in the Vietnamese jungle.
Remains found a few months later initially were believed to be his. Reports this week suggest that military officials may have moved his remains to the Tomb of the Unknowns because they needed an unidentified body from the war in Vietnam.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that it destroyed records related to the case but said it did so purposely to preserve the sanctity of the tomb, not to hide anything. And it denied that a 1980 decision to reclassify the remains as unidentified was done under pressure. The remains later were buried in Arlington.
In the letter, which referred to Blassie as “an American patriot,” the senators asked whether “identification specialists . . . were instructed to classify the remains as unidentifiable, against their best judgment, and (whether) items relating to Lt. Blassie were removed from the remains.”
Ashcroft also held a press conference in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery Wednesday at the invitation of CBS, which broke the story. Ashcroft stressed that he expects the Pentagon to respond quickly, to release all available documents and to provide straight answers to the family. Foot-dragging by defense officials will not be tolerated, he said.
Meeting separately with reporters, Bond said: “If, in fact, they took the remains of an airman whose identity they knew and did not turn it over to the family, that is a violation of the most basic requirements of human decency and dignity.”
Bond said that the family members “understandably want to know if that is their son.”
He also said it was “standard procedure” to allow family members to talk to someone on the crash team, in the hope of getting some information about their relative. But Bond said that the family was not notified of this opportunity.
What is known about the armed forces' conduct in the matter appears “really disconcerting,” Bond said.
One of Blassie's sisters, Pat Blassie, said in St. Louis that the questions raised by Bond and Ashcroft mirror her family's questions.
“We are really encouraged and grateful for their support, and we are hoping the response from the secretary of defense leads us to the truth,” she said.
Joseph Michael Blassie, the uncle and godfather of Michael Blassie, said in reference to the letter sent by Bond and Ashcroft, “That says it all.”
Blassie, a St. Louis resident and the retired longtime business agent for the meat-cutters' union and labor representative for the American Red Cross, added: “The good Lord willing, maybe they might exhume the body and do the DNA testing. That's all the family is looking for.”
Col. E.A. Cassimatis of Creve Coeur, who is retired from the Air Force, said he had interviewed and recruited Blassie at St. Louis University High School. It was Cassimatis' job as athletic representative for the Air Force for eastern Missouri and western Illinois to advise potential recruits how to apply and how to gain the support of their member of Congress.
“He was one of my favorite kids,” Cassimatis said Wednesday.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard