Journey to Bring ‘Unknown Soldier’ Home Shared by Daemen Speaker
January 24, 2014
Director of Institutional Communication
AMHERST, N.Y. -- Air Force Col. Patricia S. Blassie shared a powerful message of forgiveness and healing as she spoke Jan. 16 at Daemen College about her family’s personal journey to determine whether the Unknown Vietnam Soldier interred in Arlington National Cemetery was her brother, Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie.
“I believe in doing what’s right. I believe in the truth,” said Blassie, as she reflected on this poignant experience. “I know the goal of having a Vietnam soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns was to help the nation heal. I also have the mindset that when you do what’s right for the nation, you must remember and do what’s right for the families (of those who serve our country).”
In 1972, Michael’s aircraft was shot down over South Vietnam and crashed in an area then controlled by enemy forces. Presumed dead, the Blassie family was notified of this tragic loss. The 24-year-old Air Force lieutenant served with distinction as he was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters for his heroic military service.
Several months later, a South Vietnam Army patrol discovered the crash site along with the remains of an airman, remnants of a flight suit and other items. Conflicting analysis ultimately led to the remains being designated as unknown and assigned the label “X-26.”
Speaking before a display of items recovered from the crash site more than 40 years ago, Blassie said that “unbeknownst to the family at the time, Michael’s remains were reclassified as unknown. The anthropological study noted his age and height were not considered a match to my brother.”
On Memorial Day 1984, the then unidentified Vietnam era remains were laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknowns. Questions, however, began to arise about the identity of the unknown soldier when Ted Sampley, an activist for American prisoners of war and missing service members, contacted the Blassies that he believed the remains were that of Michael. Unaware the wreckage of the plane and remains had been found years earlier, the family was astonished by Sampley’s claim.
Soon after, the family heard of Susan Sheehan’s book, “A Missing Plane,” which provides an in-depth account of the discovery of a crashed American bomber missing for 38 years and efforts to identify the plane’s passengers. Compelled by this, Patricia Blassie contacted the military in hopes of learning if remains of the Unknown Vietnam Solider were, in fact, those of Michael.
As Jean Blassie, mother of Michael, eldest of the five Blassie children, said at the time: “We want to bring him home.”
Patricia Blassie pointed out there were “three different mortuary documents linking X-26 to Michael. The ‘smoking gun’ was one letter that asked for Michael’s name to be removed from those three documents.”
Urged by the family, the U.S. Department of the Defense opened the Tomb of the Unknown site so that previously unavailable DNA testing could be conducted. The solemn mystery was solved when military forensic anthropologists revealed that sophisticated tests concluded the remains belonged to Michael.
“In the end,” said Blassie, who was 13-years-old when her brother died, “Michael was matched by 90-95 percent to the Unknown Vietnam Soldier remains.”
In July 1998, more than 4,000 people attended the funeral for Michael, whose remains had been returned to his hometown of St. Louis nearly 26 years after being killed in action for burial with full military honors in the Jefferson National Cemetery. As Michael was the only unknown soldier from the Vietnam War, that tomb in Arlington has remained empty.
For Patricia Blassie, she acknowledged that the experience initially left her with mixed feelings about her own promising military career. “I wondered if I would continue to wear the uniform. I came to the conclusion though, with God’s grace, one person would lose and that person would be me,” recalled Blassie, who now serves as chief of the Air Force Reserve Professional Development Center at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.
Several veterans in Western New York came out to Daemen for Blassie’s rather moving presentation. “This story is remarkable,” said one veteran in attendance. “I’m so proud of your (Patricia Blassie’s) courage and so glad you came here to speak.”