Pentagon opposes decorating flier taken from tomb – August 18, 1998

The Defense Department signalled on Tuesday it was unlikely to award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War pilot whose remains were identified after being removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said he did not think a final decision had been relayed to the family of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie. The family had asked that the nation's highest award for military valour be transferred to Blassie from the Vietnam crypt of the memorial, which is at Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.

But Bacon told reporters in response to questions: “I think we have made it pretty clear that our view is that the Medal of Honour was symbolic. It went to the tomb as a symbol for all those missing in action (in the Vietnam War). I suspect that we will convey the final decision when that is made relatively soon to the Blassie family.”

The remains of Blassie, who was shot down and killed in 1972, were disinterred and officially identified in June. He was reburied in St. Louis last month near his mother's house.

Officials of veterans' groups have expressed sympathy for Blassie's family but say Congress in 1983 bestowed the Medal of Honour for extreme valour on “unknown” remains buried in the Vietnam War crypt of the tomb to honour the more than 2,000 members of the U.S. armed forces missing in that war.

Blassie was 24 years old when he was shot down and had received a number of medals while flying more than 130 combat missions.

But the nation's highest military honour normally requires specific testimony by witnesses to an especially heroic act, and no such testimony has been received on Blassie's behalf, according to defence officials.

The opening of the tomb, a popular tourist attraction that also contains remains of U.S. military personnel killed in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War, came in response to a plea from Blassie's family.

Gene samples from the bones were tested against DNA material provided by members of Blassie's family and families of other Americans lost in a small area of South Vietnam in mid-1972.

Experts identified the six bones buried in the Vietnam crypt as Blassie's.

The remains were tentatively identified as his after they were found by South Vietnamese troops in 1972.

But they were later reclassified as unknown when the less sophisticated blood and other forensic tests of the time indicated they did not correspond to a man of Blassie's size.

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