11-10-2016 Tri-City Area History Page

Paw Paw River Journal

Paw Paw River Journal

The Empty Tomb

 At Arlington National Cemetery there is an empty tomb.  It was originally the last resting place for our Unknown Soldier from Vietnam. On Memorial Day in 1984 he was interred in there amidst a ceremony full of bittersweet memories.  There was a huge parade, as the remains of an unknown warrior from Vietnam were accompanied by an honor guard to Arlington Cemetery.

The honor guard, all spit and polish, represented the different branches of service.  All young, they looked curiously alike with skin head haircuts and solemn expressions.  Bystanders were teary eyed, and veterans along the way saluted the anonymous body in the casket as it passed.  Everyone there who had fought in a war… and those who had lost someone… you could see it in their eyes still… pain and suffering.

And something curious happened along the way. Outside the Capitol a group of Vietnam veterans gathered where the Unknown Soldier had lain in state for several days.   Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they tried to join the parade along with military bands and other organizations.  Police intervened, and once again officialdom ran smack into the wall of resentment from the grunts who felt it was just another denial of their rights.

After some negotiating, officials agreed that the veterans could bring up the rear. One mustachioed guy said, “That’s all right, it’s where we’ve always been… at the rear!” And thus they marched… with precision and enthusiasm… dressed in the same uniforms they had worn in the field, many sporting badges and other ornaments, some with beards and moustaches.  That may have been the day we began to heal our nation’s wounds from which we had been suffering ever since that unfortunate war.

At Arlington, President Reagan gave a moving speech.  In it he said, “…As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city?  Did he work beside his father on a farm in America’s heartland?  Did he marry?  Did he have children?”  At the conclusion he said, “Let us, if we must, debate the lessons learned at some other time; today we simply say with pride: ‘Thank you, Dear Son, and may God cradle you in his loving arms.’”

That was in 1984, and now since 1998 the final resting place for that unknown Vietnam veteran has been empty.  His identity is no longer unknown, and he is also probably the last one to be so honored… even though we have had wars since then.  But the day he was buried no one knew what was to happen later.  It was the family of Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie who brought the true identity of Vietnam’s Unknown Soldier to light.

They had not rested since he was declared Missing in Action in that war.  And they had been doing their own digging, in a sense… interviewing people who knew their son and husband.  They had pinned down the likely area where in all probability his airplane had crashed.  They believed the body of that hero who rested in Arlington’s splendor was their flesh and blood.  They would not rest until they persuaded the government to run DNA tests to find out.

The area where the wrecked aircraft was found had been treated much like an archaeological project.  The team sectioned off the area and began to dig and sift through the remains.  The body was taken to Honolulu.  There the identification process began at the lab.  Dental and skeletal records were checked.  And no positive ID could be made. It has only been since the 1990s that DNA testing has come into use.  So there was the candidate for entombment in Arlington’s beautiful setting.

In cases where many years have passed, a match for the remains can only be made with DNA from the deceased’s mother’s bloodline.  This was done with a bone fragment from the Vietnam Unknown.  And thus the body was identified as that of Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie.  His father had died in 1991, but Mrs. Blassie and the children had never rested until the body was identified as their son and brother.

In Meridian, Mississippi, a young woman watched the story unfold on TV.  This was the girl that Michael Blassie loved, but had not married.  They were together a year before he left for Vietnam.  Through later marriage, motherhood, and divorce she had kept his photograph in her living room.  Now as his picture came on the screen, she walked over to the set and placed her hand on his face.  Then she called his mother.

So in a solemn ceremony, the body of the no-longer Unknown was removed from its resting place at Arlington and reburied in the pilot’s home town.  The whole family is immensely pleased to have, at last, this closure.  And back at our most famous National Cemetery, the guard paces back and forth… keeping watch over our other Unknowns and the now empty mausoleum.

Most likely it will remain thus.  Now all servicemen and women leave a DNA sample… making it likely there will never be another Unknown.  But al