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Home at last for a fallen hero

casket July 11, 1998
Web posted at: 1:38 p.m. EDT (1738 GMT)

ST. LOUIS (CNN) -- Before a crowd of hundreds who gathered Saturday to honor a fallen hero once buried as an unknown, the youngest Blassie recalled his last conversation with his older brother, Michael.

"While holding a picture of an A-37, I can remember asking Michael, 'How can this plane be shot down?'" said George Blassie, who was 10 years old at the time.

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"It would be almost impossible," Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie assured young George.

Lt. Blassie left home for Vietnam. It would be 26 years before he would return home -- in a casket bearing only six bones, disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Virginia.

George Blassie
George Blassie  

The Blassie family finally laid their Michael to rest on Saturday at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis County -- in a grave on which will rest a marble headstone bearing his name.

The fallen airman was given full military honors during the hour-long service, including a "missing man" flyover by F-15 Eagle fighter jets.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and his wife attended the graveside service, along with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan and other U.S. officials.

Older sister Pat Blassie publicly thanked the officials for supporting the family's efforts to identify the lieutenant's remains and return him to a final resting place in his hometown.

Pat Blassie
Pat Blassie  

She also told the crowd that many people have inquired how the family can endure such public exposure at a time that should be painful and private.

"There is truly no other way that we can bring this to a close ... than to share (the experience) with you," Pat Blassie, a captain in the Air Force Reserve, told the crowd.

Michael Blassie's A-37 was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972, just months after his tour of duty began. Because of fighting in the area, it was fall before military officials reached and recovered Blassie's body.

His identification tags, parts of his flight suit and some of his bones were recovered from the scene. But because the military could not be certain the remains were Blassie's, his family was only told that he was missing in action.

Michael Blassie
Blassie was flying an A-37 jet when he was shot down over South Vietnam  

On Memorial Day 1984, the remains -- four ribs, pelvis and the upper part of an arm -- were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

A decade later, armed with evidence indicating the remains could belong to the lost lieutenant, the Blassies began lobbying the Pentagon to exhume the remains to allow DNA testing.

The positive identification was announced last month, and Blassie's remains arrived in St. Louis Friday.

On Saturday, Pat Blassie told the crowd she thought often about the controversy that surrounded the exhumation of her brother's remains from such hallowed ground.

family
Blassie family members say Pledge of Allegiance during the funeral  

"What is so important about just six bones?" she said she asked herself.

Pat Blassie said she found her answer in the Bible, in the story of Joseph and his request to his brothers to bring his body out of Egypt and back into the Land of Canaan following his death.

"I truly believe that God chose to reveal where my brother was buried ... and then has allowed us to bring him home," Pat Blassie told the crowd. "To me, there is no other reasonable explanation."

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