ST. LOUIS — The Medal of Honor that hung on the Tomb of the Unknowns for 14 years while Air Force Lt. Michael J. Blassie was buried there will not join him at his new burial place.
Relatives of the Vietnam War casualty, whose remains were identified and moved this summer to a national cemetery near his home, were told by Undersecretary of Defense Rudy de Leon that their request for the medal had been denied.
The family was disappointed but respects the Defense Department's decision, said Blassie's sister, Air Force Reserve Capt. Patricia Blassie.
"As a family, we really believe the medal should follow Michael," she said Friday.
The St. Louis pilot was shot down May 11, 1972, during the battle of An Loc in South Vietnam.
At the family's insistence, the government agreed in May to disinter remains believed to be Blassie's from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. DNA testing produced a positive identification, and his remains were reburied July 10 at Jefferson Barrack National Cemetery outside St. Louis.
In a letter to the family dated Thursday, De Leon said that, under the 1984 law establishing the Tomb for the Vietnam War era, the Medal of Honor was awarded symbolically to an entire class of unidentified soldiers, rather than an individual.
"It is the Department's intent to keep the Vietnam Unknown Medal of Honor on display at Arlington National Cemetery as a tribute to all who, like Michael, unselfishly gave their lives in service to our nation during the Vietnam conflict," he wrote.
But Patricia Blassie said, "It was presented to the Vietnam Unknown. And Michael is the Vietnam Unknown."
Veterans groups had opposed the family's request.
"The law is very specific," said Phil Budahn, spokesman for the American Legion's national headquarters in Washington. "The lieutenant no longer fits the criteria of the law."