They continued to arrive Sunday – the beat-to-hell pickups and the polished black Oldsmobiles, the women with hair as white as the whitest headstones and the old men with thick, calloused hands and knees that ached when they walked.
Some had been here Saturday when Michael Blassie was buried just a few steps off Circle Drive at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. But most, like Willie Sexauer, came for the first time Sunday.
“You know,” said Sexauer, 68, a Korean War veteran from De Soto, Mo., “s ome people think they hand out freedom like candy bars. But you look out over these hills and you see all of these stones and you know what freedom costs. It makes you feel sad, but it makes you feel good, too. And it makes you feel proud.
“Yes, definitely proud.”
Jenny Ryan of South County buried her husband here just four months ago. Since then, she says, she comes to the cemetery often, spreads a plastic tablecloth over his grave and talks to him. Sunday, she said, she decided to visit Blassie and talk with him, too.
“I told him that I was glad to see him come home,” she said, “and I thanked him for what he did.”
Blassie, a lieutenant in the Air Force, was shot down over Vietnam in 1972. For 26 years, his body remained unidentified; for the past 14 of those years, Blassie was the Vietnam Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. DNA tests in June finally confirmed his identity, and his family decided to return his remains to St. Louis, where he grew up and went to school.
A steady stream of people visited Blassie's grave site Sunday. Some simply slowed their cars as they passed the flower-covered site. Others parked, walked to the grave site and prayed silently.
Fifteen American flags – some as large as large handkerchiefs and one no t much bigger than a postage stamp – decorated the plot. At the back of the headstone, someone had fashioned a makeshift cross out of what looked like two blue drinking straws and a piece of wire.
Charles Helbig and his wife, Dorothy, drove from their home in St. Charles to pay their respects. Helbig, a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 months during World War II, said the couple's daughter had attended grade school with Blassie.
The couple said the ceremonies surrounding Blassie's homecoming offered St. Louisans a chance to honor not only Blassie and not only Vietnam veterans but all veterans. “This,” Dorothy Helbig said, “has made people think.”
But Al Eggers, a Marine who served in Vietnam in the early 1970s, said he is cynical about whether the feelings will last.
“People just don't seem to care any more,” he said.
“They may forget, but I will never forget.
“All I have is God and country. That is all I have.
“And that's all I need.”
While most of the visitors Sunday were World War II-era and Korean-era veterans, there were some poignant exceptions.
Among them was Stacey Davis, 26, who brought her three sons, Damian, 8, Jason, 5, and Erik, 3 to Blassie's grave site.
Davis, who noted that Blassie was killed the same year she was born, t ook her sons by the hand and knelt at the foot of the grave site.
“When our country was at war with other countries, this man and everybody else here, everybody else who is buried here, they went and they fought for us,” she told them. “Tell me what you think; do you think he was a brave man?” The oldest boy nodded, the youngest reached for a flag.
“No,” his mother said, “those are not to play with.”
“Hopefully,” she said, “one day they'll understand.”
She said she hopes her sons never have to go to war. But if they are called, she says she hopes they go proudly, like Michael Blassie.
“If the time ever comes, I want them to be brave,” she said, “and I want them to love their country enough to fight for it.”
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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