The night before the remains of the Vietnam War soldier were removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns, workers labored mightily to break through and then lift the last layer of concrete that sealed the crypt.
It was a much harder task than expected, and the workmen feared their jackhammers and crane would prove no match to the barrier, set 14 years ago to perpetually protect the simple steel casket bearing a scant six bones.
Standing nearby that night was Army Corporal Mark Travis, a member of the elite guards who maintain a constant vigil at the Tomb.
“I just figured he was down there, holding on to it, keeping it down,” Travis said.
The disinterment at Arlington National Cemetery took place May 12. Last week, the Pentagon announced it had identified the soldier as Air Force First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, of Florissant, Missouri.
Travis, 22, is from Fairbury, Illinois. He can't explain it, he said, but he felt an uncommon bond with that soldier virtually from the first day 2 1/2 years ago he joined the Tomb sentinel unit of the Army's ceremonial Old Guard.
These are the stone-faced soldiers, outfitted so meticulously that it takes them more than two hours to polish their shoes, who pace a precise 21 steps back and forth in front of the Tomb all day and night, in snow and blazing heat.
`I was just so sad. . .'
When the bones were exhumed so forensic experts could attempt to identify them, Travis said, “I was just so sad to see him go.”
Now that it has been determined the remains are those of Blassie, a 24-year-old combat pilot shot down in 1972 near An Loc, South Vietnam, Travis is struggling to reconcile reality with his imagination.
“I really didn't want to know,” he said. But now that he does, he intends to research the An Loc battle, as well as Blassie and his 8th Special Operations Squadron.
Travis came to his post with a curiosity about the Vietnam War, which ended three years before he was born. Since then, he has immersed himself in its history.
As Travis' knowledge of that troubled time grew, so did his regard for the Vietnam Unknown, who, in his anonymity, represented not only the 2,087 GIs still unaccounted for but, in a larger sense, all the 58,200 U.S. soldiers who died in Southeast Asia.
Travis is quick to declare his devotion to the three other Unknowns, one each from World War I, World War II and the Korean conflict. Travis – like his fellow Tomb guards – considers it a solemn honor to keep round-the-clock watch over the Unknowns, who “didn't only give up their lives, they also gave up their identities – the ultimate sacrifice.”
But, Travis said, during his 24-hour shifts – and even on his days off – he found himself wondering about the Vietnam soldier: his personality and moral standards, his life goals, his final thoughts.
`I miss him'
Sometimes, especially at night when he was alone at the Tomb, Travis carried on small conversations with the buried soldier. Two nights before the disinterment, he said a private goodbye. Now, “I miss him,” he said.
When the casket finally was pulled from its resting place, dusty but otherwise intact, Travis managed to touch it for a moment. “I've never felt such a chill go down my spine. To be that close to someone so honorable,” he said, lost for further words.
He has wrestled with the question of whether it was a good or bad thing to remove the remains to try to identify them. Travis has empathy for Blassie's family, whose prodding pushed the Pentagon to take the unprecedented step of disinterring the Vietnam Unknown, and for the families of all the others still missing. Michael Blassie's family intends to re-bury him at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside St. Louis, perhaps as early as Saturday.
“You'd want the families to know,” Travis said. But he also sees the role the Unknowns play to families whose loved ones never came home. “I see a lot of people who come here with hope that it's their father or son. A lot of times they break down crying, because this is where they can” mourn them, he said.
He wonders what Blassie would have wanted: to be able to bring peace to his family, or to pay the ultimate price and stay anonymous as a symbol for the nation. If it were he, Travis said, he thinks he'd choose the latter.
The Tomb guard also is ambivalent about the likelihood that – given scientific advances – there never again will be an Unknown Soldier and no other soldier from the Vietnam war will take Blassie's place. While the loss of such a national symbol would be great, the remaining three Unknowns will more than fill any void.
“In a way, nothing will really change,” Travis said.
Travis, who will leave the Army in September, plans to go to college for a business degree. When he makes his “last walk,” as the Tomb sentinels call the farewell ritual, he intends to leave a red rose atop the Vietnam crypt. The casket may be gone, but not the essence of the man or the meaning of the spot.
“His soul's still there,” Travis said. “It's where he was put to rest.”
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