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Family Buries 'Unknown' Soldier

After 26 years, the family of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, buried the pilot Saturday, ending a painful mystery that began in 1972. Blassie's remains, which had been buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns for 14 years, were identified last month by DNA testing. His remains were finally brought home aboard a C-130 cargo plane Friday in a solemn service befitting a pilot killed in the line of duty in Vietnam.

Blassie was buried Saturday with full military honors at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.

An honor guard was fired a 21-gun salute and F-15 Eagle fighters flew overhead in the "missing man" formation as Blassie was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis in a ceremony presided over by the eldest sibling, Pat Blassie, a captain in the Air Force Reserve.

Hundreds, including Secretary of Defense William Cohen and House minority leader Richard Gephardt, attended the ceremony. Mourners included military personnel, veterans and civilians.

For Pat Blassie, Michael's sister, the once unknown soldier still is a symbol for the country.

"He's still serving today because he now represents those that need to come home," she said.

Blassie was laid to rest beneath lush bluegrass in the cemetery's oldest section, established in 1826 alongside the original military post.

On Friday, Family and friends gathered to welcome his return at Scott Air Force Base, near Blassie's hometown of Florissant, Mo., a St. Louis suburb.

"Mike lived a hero, and he came home a hero," said Emanuel Cassimatis, the Air Force Academy liaison officer who recruited Blassie in 1965.

During a memorial service Friday evening at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Blassie was remembered as a courageous young man who fought for peace.

"At a moment of great crises in the history of the world, he gave of himself," Archbishop Justin Rigali said to about 350 friends, family members and current and former members of the military.

Blassie's mother, three sisters and brother each carried small American flags during the service.

"The resting place of Michael was for so long the Tomb of the Unknowns," Rigali said. "This shrine was still distant from his house, the soil of Missouri, the banks of the Mississippi. Today he comes home."

Blassie, a 24-year-old first lieutenant, had been missing since May 11, 1972, when his A-37 fighter was shot down over An Loc during a bombing run. His jet lost a wing, crashed and burned.

Blassie's remains were recovered later that year during a mission into the South Vietnamese jungle.

The bones were taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where officials said they were "believed to be" those of Blassie. But the evidence that they were Blassie's was too slim, so the designation was removed in 1979.

Blassie was then listed as "killed in action, no body recoverd." In 1984, on Memorial Day, Blassie's remains - four ribs, pelvis and the upper part of an arm - were buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.

For the past year, Pat Blassie crusaded for the disinterment, convinced that recent evidence - including Blassie's wallet and dog tags found near the crash site - suggested the remains were those of her brother.

The remains were exhumed in May; DNA tests that were not available 26 years ago confirmed the remains were Blassie's.

"Today was a significant day for us," Blassie's brother, George Blassie said during Friday's service. "This has meant so much to us. We believe Michael would have been proud of how we pulled together to bring him home."

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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