Families Face Emotional Trial – May 14, 1998

Whatever emotions run through them as they watch a coffin being removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday, the relatives of two men lost in the Vietnam War are apt to feel the years just fall away.

It will be 26 years to the day since grim-faced visitors came to Pat Strobridge's apartment in Portland, Ore. They told her that her husband, Capt. Rodney L. Strobridge, had been shot down in his Army helicopter near An Loc three days before, and that she was probably a widow.

She has a new name and a new family and a new life now. Still, as she said the other day, “I've never stopped thinking about him, hoping and praying that we'd find closure.”

Pat Blassie of Atlanta feels that way too. Her brother, First Lt. Michael J. Blassie, was shot down in his Air Force attack plane on May 11, 1972, the same day Strobridge was lost, and in the same area. “We are ready to bring Michael home and finally put him to rest,” she said last week. Home would be a cemetery plot in St. Louis, where he grew up.

Evidence has turned up in recent weeks that the remains of the Vietnam-era serviceman in the tomb are those of Blassie or Strobridge. So DNA testing on the half-dozen bones that make up the Vietnam unknown's remains may finally give one family the peace it wants.

But how much peace? As Strobridge's former wife, now Pat Baker of Burke, Va., put it, “It's very hard to think of your loved one as six bones.”

No, when she thinks of him she remembers meeting the man with long hair.

That was in 1969, when she was Pat Mulligan, an elementary school teacher in Monterrey, Calif. She and a friend stopped for coffee. The diner was crowded, so they shared a table with strangers. A man with the kind of mod hair that was fashionable back then introduced himself as Rod. They talked for a while, and he asked if he could call her.

When Rod picked her up that weekend, he doffed his “hair” with a flourish, revealing the crewcut appropriate for an Army pilot.

“Not everyone meets their husband wearing a wig,” Pat Baker said. “We clicked at that first meeting.”

Rod Strobridge had worn the wig to avoid being heckled by war protesters, not that he was ashamed of having done a tour in Vietnam.

They married in the summer of 1970, and the next year he was sent to helicopter school (his first tour had been flying fixed-wing aircraft), and not long after Christmas he left for Vietnam, and she went to Oregon to be near her parents. She never saw him again.

That Sunday, May 14, 1972, when the Army said Strobridge was presumed dead, was Mother's Day. It was a week before Althea Strobridge's birthday, and eight days before her son would have turned 31.

For a while, Pat dared to hope. But the months went by, and then the years. “You're not single, you're not married,” she said of the sad limbo of those days. “And friends that keep in touch with you at the beginning…”

May 1972 was a cruel month for the Blassie family too. Two of Michael's sisters had celebrated birthdays, Judy on the 6th and Mary on the 7th. Then came the notification that Michael was missing and probably dead.

A career officer, Michael was 24 when he disappeared. His brother, George, was 11. “Michael was a hero, a mentor to us, to me,” George Blassie said the other day from his home in St. Louis. By his voice, it is clear that he cannot quite comprehend being much older than his big brother ever got to be.

His siblings all feel that way. Even allowing for their selective amnesia, Michael seems to have been an ideal brother — protecting, prodding without bullying, pushing his brother and sisters to do their best.

Michael Blassie was good in school. He excelled in sports and music (he played the bassoon and saxophone in high school), and nobody was surprised when he went to the Air Force Academy.

“You can believe that we are proud of Michael, especially of the fact that he loved his country enough to fight and give his life for it,” Pat Blassie said last week.

“He's in our hearts,” his mother, Jean Blassie said. “He should be home with us.”

Clearly, the Blassie family (Michael's father, George, was a meat-cutter who died in 1991) would be devastated if the remains are found to be not those of Michael. His kin have said they are sure that they are, just as sure as they are that Michael would be a colonel or general today if he had lived. They are eager to have the tomb opened.

But the parents of Rodney Strobridge were ambivalent. “How can it change anything?” said George Strobridge, a 78-year-old retired plumber and World War II Navy veteran who lives in Lake Isabella, Calif. “He's gone, and he'll be gone a long time.”

The captain's mother, Althea Strobridge of Perry, Iowa, wondered if opening the tomb would dilute the solemn mystery of the site. Even assuming the Vietnam unknown is her son, Mrs. Strobridge said, “Leave him in Arlington.” Then she seemed to waver: “I'll just go along with it, come what may.”

The two families, different yet with so much in common, will meet at the tomb on Thursday.

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God,” reads the inscription on the marble monument to the original Unknown Soldier. Unknown dead from World War II and the Korean War were interred there 40 years ago. The Vietnam unknown was interred on Memorial Day 1984.

“As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city?” an emotional President Ronald Reagan asked. “Did he work beside his father on a farm in America's heartland? Did he marry? Did he have children?”

Yet the Vietnam unknown was different. The dead from the earlier wars were picked from among thousands of men who were unidentifiable by the science of their times. Thanks to modern science (and the fact that relatively fewer Americans were blown apart by heavy artillery fire than in past wars) there was never a huge group of Vietnam unknowns. Most of the 2,000 or so Americans still missing were pilots, and it is not unusual for scientists to identify flyers' remains found years later, largely because of advances in DNA testing.

The military authorities try not to give families false hope that their dead have been recovered. The Blassie family was not notified until recently that human remains found near An Loc the autumn after Michael's disappearance might be his. An identification card with his name and personal effects made it seem likely they were, and the military at first classified them as “believed to be” Michael Blassie.

But years later, the designation was changed to “unknown.” The military insists this was done because of uncertainty and not as part of a coverup, or to make remains available for the 1984 ceremony.

After the Blassie family began pressing for the tomb to be opened, the Pentagon conducted an extensive review. Investigators noted that forensic tests done years ago had turned up the possibility, based partly on blood type and bone size, that the remains could be those of Rodney Strobridge — or, less likely, those of a half-dozen other pilots and crewmen lost around An Loc.

Pat Baker just found out a couple of weeks ago that the remains of her first husband might have been found. She heard it from relatives, who had heard it on the news. Because she had remarried 18 years ago she was no longer “primary next of kin,” so the Pentagon had not notified her. If the remains in the tomb are her first husband's, they will be buried elsewhere in Arlington.

Her husband, Thomas, is a retired Army officer who lost several friends in Vietnam. He understands that the past lives in a small corner of her heart, and that the past can come rushing back.

“It doesn't take much,” she said. The sound of helicopters will do it or, more painful, old film of anti-war protesters. “Hopefully, we're beyond that now.”

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