Lieutenant Blassie Buried With Earth From Arlington National Cemetery July 11, 1998

ST. LOUIS — Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie was laid to rest Saturday near his home, half a continent away from the Tomb of the Unknowns where his remains had been enshrined for 14 years.

Blassie, identified through DNA testing that wasn’t available when his remains were recovered from a Vietnam jungle, was buried with full military honors in the oldest section of the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

“Since my brother’s death, there has been an emptiness in my heart,” said George Blassie, who was only 11 when Michael was shot down. “The man I looked up to was no longer in my life. Part of my future was shattered when Michael died.”

Before Blassie’s casket was lowered into the ground, his mother, Jean Blassie, silently removed a red, white and blue cloth cover from her son’s 2-foot-high, white marble gravestone. She then poured out 6 ounces of dirt collected from Arlington National Cemetery on May 14, the day his remains were disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

An honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and F-15 Eagle fighters flew overhead.

Defense Secretary William Cohen and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt were among the hundreds of people who attended the ceremony. Many of the mourners filed past the grave after the family left, some leaving small American flags, roses and other mementos.

The ceremony was presided over by one of Blassie’s sisters, Pat Blassie, a captain in the Air Force Reserve.

She said she had a simple answer for the many people who asked the family why they held such a public service.

“Although Michael is our dear mother’s son and our brother, for many years he has represented so many,” she said. “This is not just the Blassie family’s day. It’s our day.”

Judy Cozad, the oldest of the siblings, said she still sees her brother’s face in the faces of the U.S. servicemen who fly these days in the no-fly zone over Iraq.

“My brother believed in America just like these young men,” she said. “And he like them believed that freedom is not free.”

Blassie, a 24-year-old first lieutenant, was shot down May 11, 1972, at the controls of his A-37 fighter during a bombing run over An Loc.

His remains were recovered later that year and taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where officials said they were “believed to be” those of Blassie. But the evidence was too slim and that designation was removed in 1979.

Blassie was then listed as “killed in action, no body recovered.” In 1984, on Memorial Day, the 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 had crusaded for the disinterment, convinced that the remains entombed without a name were those of her brother.

The bones were exhumed in May and DNA tests confirmed the remains were Blassie’s.

Blassie’s remains were brought back to St. Louis on Friday, and a memorial service was held Friday evening at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, where he 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, relatives and current and former members of the military.

“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.”

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