As six members of an Air Force honor guard lifted the flag-draped casket containing the remains of her once-lost brother, tears returned to Pat Blassie's eyes.
Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns for 14 years, came home aboard a C-130 cargo plane Friday in a solemn service befitting a pilot killed in the line of duty in Vietnam.
“All of a sudden, it's as if no time has passed,” said Pat Blassie, whose yearlong crusade to bring her brother home is nearing an end. “We're grieving all over again.”
Family and friends gathered to welcome his return at Scott Air Force Base, near Blassie's hometown of Florissant, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.
“Mike lived a hero, and he came home a hero,” said Emanuel Cassimatis, the Air Force Academy liaison officer who recruited Blassie in 1965.
Blassie was to be buried today with full military honors at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and other top-ranking military personnel were expected to attend.
Blassie was to be laid to rest beneath lush bluegrass and fescue in the cemetery's oldest section, established in 1826 alongside the original military post.
A simple, 2-foot-high piece of white Georgia marble will serve as the grave's headstone — a marker his family and friends have waited 26 years to give the lost pilot.
During a memorial service Friday evening at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Blassie was remembered as a courageous young man who fought for peace.
“At a moment of great crises in the history of the world, he gave of himself,” Archbishop Justin Rigali said to about 350 friends, family members and current and former members of the military.
Blassie's mother, three sisters and brother each carried small American flags during the service. A bouquet of red and white flowers were held together with red, white and blue ribbons. Two pictures of Blassie — one taken when he was a child and the other during his military service — sat on a table at the front of the church.
“The resting place of Michael was for so long the Tomb of the Unknowns,” Rigali said. “This shrine was still distant from his house, the soil of Missouri, the banks of the Mississippi. Today he comes home.”
Blassie, a 24-year-old first lieutenant, had been missing since May 11, 1972, when his A-37 fighter was shot down over An Loc during a bombing run. His jet lost a wing, crashed and burned.
Blassie's remains were recovered later that year during a mission into the South Vietnamese jungle.
The bones were taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where officials said they were “believed to be” those of Blassie. But the evidence that they were Blassie's was too slim, so the designation was removed in 1979.
Blassie was then listed as “killed in action, no body recovered.” In 1984, on Memorial Day, Blassie's remains — four ribs, pelvis and the upper part of an arm — were buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
For the past year, Pat Blassie crusaded for the disinterment, convinced that recent evidence — including Blassie's wallet and dog tags found near the crash site — suggested the remains were those of her brother.
The remains were exhumed in May; DNA tests that were not available 26 years ago confirmed the remains were Blassie's.
“Today was a significant day for us,” Blassie's brother, George Blassie said during Friday's service. “This has meant so much to us. We believe Michael would have been proud of how we pulled together to bring him home.”
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard