The remains of an American buried 14 years ago in homage to the nation's unidentified Vietnam War dead are unknown no longer: They belong to Air Force pilot Michael J. Blassie.
President Clinton, traveling in China, issued a statement confirming that the remains disinterred last month from the Tomb of the Unknowns were Blassie's.He said a positive confirmation was made through DNA testing and that the Pentagon has notified the Blassie family "and the other families involved in resolving this difficult case."
"I am pleased that one more family has finally learned the fate of a loved one, and I remain committed to seeking a full accounting of the missing in action from that conflict," Clinton said in Shanghai.
Now, 26 years after Blassie's A-37 fighter was shot down around An Loc, Vietnam, his family will have the opportunity to bring him home, and military officials will have to decide whether to inter the remains of another serviceman.
"We are finally going to bring Michael home," sister Patricia Blassie, 39, told reporters outside the home of Blassie's mother, Jean, in Florissant, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. Noting the family had "waited a long time to hear this formally," she said, "We are confident that if one of us had been missing, Michael Blassie wouldn't have rested until we were found."
"He was a motivated young man, even as a boy," recalled his mother. "He was good at everything he tried to do." Added his brother, George Blassie: "He was a mentor. He was a hero. He deserves to be known."
Reburial was scheduled for July 11 at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, where a white marble marker reserved for the missing bears his name.
The identity was made public in a Pentagon telephone call to the family of another of the servicemen whose remains officials thought might be in the tomb. The official who called "just said they had got the results back and that the body was Blassie's," said Althea Strobridge, the mother of Capt. Rodney Strobridge, an Army helicopter pilot whom officials had believed may have been in the tomb.
Still unresolved is whether another unknown serviceman will replace Blassie on the sacred grounds. The remains were placed in the tomb in 1984, several years after government scientists ruled they did not belong to Blassie, who was a 24-year-old first lieutenant when he disappeared.
But DNA test methods developed since then made the identification possible. Some groups, such as the National League of POW-MIA Families, have said they opposed interring the remains of another veteran just for this reason - advanced technology could help identify more unknowns.
A senior military officer, working on the issue, said no decision had been made on the issue.
"That will be something that higher officials will have to decide," said the officer. He indicated the White House and Congress also would have to be consulted.
The tomb holds the remains of an unidentified U.S. soldier from World War I. Adjacent to it lie the remains of unknown service members from World War II, the Korean War, and, formerly, the Vietnam War.
In Perry, Iowa, Althea Strobridge, still shaken from the news that the remains were not those of her son, expressed mixed emotions.
"He's still MIA," missing in action, she said of her son. "I don't know whether to cry or be happy. I didn't know I would feel this way."