UNFORGOTTEN SOLDIERS Two mothers differ on opening Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns. But both are happy their son's heroism is no longer unknown to those they fought to protect.


Two soldiers.

Both loved their country.

Both loved to fly.

And 26 years ago today, in one of the last major battles of the

Vietnam War, both crashed and died on the same afternoon within three miles of each other. Their inscribed names nearly touch on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge was 30.

Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie was 24.

Their bodies were never recovered. Grieving family members held memorial services, but there was nothing to bury.

Until now.

Pentagon officials believe six bones -- four ribs, part of a pelvis and upper right arm -- buried in the Vietnam section of the Tomb the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery belong either to Strobridge or Blassie.

Last week, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen agreed with military advisers who said the need of a family to bury a loved one outweighs the need of a country to leave undisturbed one of its most sacred sites.

He ordered the tomb reopened and the remains tested using sophisticated forensic tools not available on Memorial Day 1984, when the bones were buried near remains from World War I, World War II and Korea, under this message:

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."

Sometime this week, workers will cut through the marble, granite and concrete, and a crane will lift a steel casket from the ground. A ceremony will be held, and the remains will be sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville.

If the tests are successful, two mothers will soon learn if the remains are those of their sons.

Jean Blassie wants to know.

"I still look at him like he's my little boy."

Althea Strobridge would rather leave well enough alone.

"He's still dead. I can't hug him. That's what I'd like to do."

Two mothers.

Both live alone in Midwestern apartments -- Blassie in a St. Louis suburb, Strobridge in a small Iowa town.

Both loved their sons.

And both agree that they deserve to be known.

He was a California boy -- tanned, athletic, with chiseled features. "He looked like Robert Wagner," the mother says. "He was a pretty guy."

Althea Strobridge sits in her tiny apartment in Perry, Iowa, across the street from the high school, about 40 miles northwest of Des Moines. She wears a sweater, fuzzy blue slippers and a sandy-colored wig. She is 78, hard of hearing and uses a cane for balance.

She spaced her three children five years apart -- Rodney was the oldest, then Connie, then Brian. Brian lives in Colorado. As for Connie, "I'm not giving you any information." There's bad feelings there. She hasn't seen her grandchildren for 10 years.

She was closest to Rodney. "He was the only one in the whole damn family that encouraged me," she says. "He was kind of like a buddy, you know."

He grew up in Torrance, Calif., a fun-loving kid who pitched for the high school baseball team and once skipped school for 30 days, mostly to play cards with friends. A fair student -- "he couldn't spell worth anything," his mother says -- he attended college in El Camino and Santa Monica, but did not graduate.

Drafted in 1966, Strobridge thrived in the Army; family members say he would have been a career soldier. When he graduated from flight school, his mother pinned his wings to his chest.

He survived one tour of duty in Vietnam as a fixed-wing pilot, calling in jet air strikes. When he returned, he met a schoolteacher named Patty. They were married in 1970.

"He was full of fun, very outgoing, an avid golfer," says Patty Baker, now 54 and remarried in Burke, Va., near Fairfax. "He was always trying to teach me to play bridge."

Back to Vietnam

He returned to Vietnam in March 1972, this time as the pilot of an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.

"Mom, I'm going over there to bring the boys home," he told his mother.

Althea Strobridge last saw her son during Christmas of 1971. She was living in Iowa; she moved there after leaving her husband, George, in 1958, and divorcing him three years later.

She has not had an easy life. "No, I sure haven't," she says. Moving around the country, working at different jobs, reading the telegram that her son's helicopter had been shot down on May 11, 1972, and that he was missing. She had him declared dead in 1978.

She often wonders how her life would be different if Rodney were alive. "I'd have a nice television set, not that old thing," she says. "I'd have a nice little car. He always took care of me financially."

On the coffee table in front of her sits a magnifying glass, two bottles of prescription pills, a cigarette lighter, spent rifle shells from her son's memorial service, old photos of Rodney with planes ("The airplane I wish I flew," he wrote on one), old newspaper clippings, old Mother's Day cards.

"I love you, Mom," one says.

For 10 years, the cards, photos and medals remained locked in a suitcase in Althea Strobridge's bedroom. She retrieved them when people started asking about her son, wondering if those were his remains buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

She accepts that he's dead. What else matters? She says she doesn't need a grave to know where her son is. She just closes her eyes and feels him in her heart. She does it almost every day.

"I don't need to know if that's him. I don't need it. I have no resources to bury him with. I'm having a hard time getting enough together to bury me."

She chuckles awkwardly, then changes the subject.

"Now I'll tell you about his medals."

They are older than him now, much older, but it doesn't matter. The clock stopped on May 11, 1972. Time froze. Michael Blassie will always be their older brother.

"We still talk about him like he's our big brother and we still look up to him," says sister Pat Blassie, 39. "He was the kind of brother you looked up to."

He was the all-American boy. So musically talented -- the bassoon and saxophone were his specialties -- that he was sent to a special St. Louis high school. So smart that he was accepted into the Air Force Academy. So dependable that he delivered three newspapers. So athletic that he was co-captain of the soccer team and captain of the tennis team at the academy. He received five varsity letters.

So determined that this is what Michael Blassie wrote about himself: "I have an overwhelming desire to be at least proficient at everything. There is a lot for me to learn."

So much of a leader that two men who knew him in the service have named sons after him. "I'd have listened to and followed him anywhere," said Jim Acquavia of Boone, N.C., in a letter, one of several the family has received in recent months.

Jean Blassie remembers exactly one time that son Michael caused her any trouble. He was in first grade, and a teacher put him in the corner for chewing a crayon. So Michael left school for the day.

"He never did anything else," his mother says.

Demanding, adored

He was demanding. His three sisters and one brother remember Michael rousting everyone out of bed, then leading them on a run or through jumping jacks on the front lawn. Eat your vegetables, he'd tell them. Do your homework. He was like a third parent.

A sister, Mary Hart, 44, remembers finally beating him at pingpong. "I don't think he liked that," she says, and everyone laughs.

They sit in their mother's apartment. Pat Blassie, a public affairs officer for the Air Force Reserve, lives in Atlanta, Mary Hart lives in St. Louis and works for a school. Brother George, 37, lives in St. Peters, Mo., and is a customer service supervisor for a grocery store. Another sister, Judy Cozad, 47, of Chesterfield, Mo., is a student. She couldn't be here.

They can't talk about Michael enough.

Pat Blassie begins: "When he'd come home from the Air Force Academy -- "

Hart: "We'd all jump on him."

Pat: "-- just sitting on his lap."

George: "We'd all want to be there at the same time. He was really strong, so he'd hold us."

Mary: "All I remember is just wanting to be right by him, listening, knowing what he did."

Jean Blassie: "He was their idol, I guess."

For 10 years, Jean Blassie kept her grief to herself, confiding in no one, turning her attention away from Michael and toward her other four children.

"I wouldn't have gotten through this without them."

She prefers not to tell her age. She has light blond hair and big glasses. She uses china that Michael sent to her. Her husband, a World War II veteran, died in 1991, and her house is filled with either the sound of grandchildren playing or her canary's singing.

This has not been easy for her, learning after all these years that her son's remains may be in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

"For Mom, it's almost as if he has just died," George says.

Michael Blassie would have been 50 on April 4.

Rodney Strobridge went down first. In fact, one officer thinks Michael Blassie may have witnessed it.

The Easter Offensive of 1972 represented one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War. For nine weeks, four divisions of North Vietnamese troops tried to overtake An Loc, a provincial capital near the Laos border, before advancing on Saigon 80 miles away.

Strobridge was sitting in the front of his Cobra, controlling the rapid-fire machine gun. His partner, Capt. Robert John Williams, was in the back, in charge of the aircraft's 52 rockets. They were part of a 186-man unit known as the Blue Max.

Maj. Larry McKay was the commander. Now living in Charleston, S.C., he says he had turned back from the western edge of An Loc to refuel and reload when Strobridge and Williams replaced him.

McKay says they destroyed two T-54, Soviet-made tanks before someone saw the familiar and deadly puff of smoke on the ground that indicated a heat-seeking missile had been launched. Someone -- McKay said it could have been either man -- yelled, "Mayday!" before the missile slammed into their tail section, splitting the helicopter and sending both pieces to the jungle below.

It was between noon and 1 p.m. on May 11. Two Cobra pilots and the pilot of an Air Force A-37B attack jet reported seeing the helicopter drop. No one could have survived, they said.

McKay believes that Air Force pilot was Blassie.

"To the best of my belief and knowledge, that's exactly what happened."

Blassie was hit moments later. In a letter to his family, Jim Connally, his flight commander, said the aircraft flew a short distance, then rolled over, exploding on impact. "He must have been killed instantly."

Five months later, a South Vietnamese patrol discovered some remains, along with Blassie's identification cards and other personal effects. They were sent to Saigon, listed as "believed to Blassie," but the identification cards were lost or stolen. Years later, tests determined that the remains were of someone taller and with a different blood type than Blassie -- Strobridge is the most likely candidate. The remains then were reclassified as unknown and eventually buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Discredited tests

Those initial identification tests since have been discredited. A relatively new form of DNA testing -- approved for military use in 1995 -- will have a better chance of identifying the remains. All that's required is a one-square inch piece of bone and a sample of the mother's blood (both mothers will cooperate). Although there's no guarantee the test will work, military officials say they should have an answer within two to four months.

"I can't even express myself," Jean Blassie said after Cohen ordered the remains exhumed. "It's a load off me. It's like living in limbo and now you're free. All we have to do is wait for the DNA test to come through and then bring him home."

They know it's him.

Every member of Michael Blassie's family says they know that he's buried in the wrong place.

"You can't leave someone in a place that's supposed to be unknown when they're known," his sister Mary Hart says.

Jean Blassie has it all planned out. She will hold a Memorial Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. She will bury Michael at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, where her husband also is buried.

And if it's not Michael?

"If that's the case, we will be disappointed," Pat Blassie says. "But Mrs. Strobridge will know what happened to her son. That's all we want. Those remains belong to someone."

Jean Blassie knows Althea Strobridge feels differently. She respects her beliefs, but this is what's right for her family.

It not just some old bones that will be exhumed this week from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

It's her son's life.

"He's a hero," the mother says. "He deserves it. He deserves to come home."

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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