Medal Honoring ‘Unknowns’ Won’t Go to Family of Identified Pilot – Saturday, August 22, 1998

Fourteen years ago, at a solemn ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the Medal of Honor, America’s highest decoration, was awarded to an anonymous representative of the Vietnam War whose remains were interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns, “known but to God.”

The remains are now gone from the tomb; they were identified in June using DNA technology and returned to family members for burial in St. Louis. But the medal will stay in Arlington, honoring those still missing from America’s longest conflict, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

Relatives of Lt. Michael Blassie, the Air Force pilot whose remains turned out to be those of the unknown, had asked that he be allowed to keep the medal.

But in a letter to the family Thursday, Undersecretary of Defense Rudy de Leon said the Pentagon had decided that the medal had been a symbolic award to all service members who lost their lives in the conflict and not to any individual service member.

Pat Blassie, Michael’s youngest sister, expressed disappointment at the Pentagon’s decision but said the family would respect it. Her family had argued that Michael Blassie had earned the right to keep the medal.

“He was the Vietnam unknown for 14 years, and he served as the representative of all the unknowns,” Pat Blassie said.

Michael Blassie, 24, was shot down near An Loc in South Vietnam in 1972. Although officials initially classified remains found near An Loc as belonging to Blassie, they eventually reclassified them as unknown after other tests suggested they might not be his.

The remains were interred at Arlington during a 1984 ceremony presided over by President Ronald Reagan. But the Blassie family eventually prevailed on officials to test the remains again, using DNA technology.

Since then, the crypt for a Vietnam veteran at the tomb has remained empty. No decision has been made on whether to inter the remains of another unknown at Arlington. One official, who asked not to be identified, said the Pentagon is proceeding cautiously, so as to avoid another situation where a future unknown is later identified.

The medal will be kept on display in a building near the tomb “as a tribute to all who, like Michael, unselfishly gave their lives in service to our nation during the Vietnam conflict,” de Leon wrote.

“The Blassie family has some measure of closure now,” said Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a Pentagon spokesman. “The other families can look to the medal.”

A spokesman for the American Legion expressed support for the Pentagon’s decision.

The Medal of Honor “may never be awarded again [to an unknown], and in some respects, that’s fine, because that’s one less family that will ever have to face the uncertainty the Blassies did,” spokesman Phil Budahn said.

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