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.

UNFORGOTTEN SOLDIERS

May 11, 1998|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

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.

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