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As St. Louis’ Soldiers Memorial adds 254 names, Gold Star families grieve, and remember

The four equestrian statues outside the museum were designed St. Louis native by Walter Hancock
Willis Ryder Arnold
St. Louis Public Radio

For many Americans, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer. Retailers see the long weekend as an opportunity to attract customers with sales, and families pull out the grill and entertain guests as spring settles into warmer weather.

Members of Gold Star Families — families that have lost an immediate family member in active duty — hold Memorial Day in high regard. It’s a day to honor their loved ones, even those whose fate remains a mystery.

Until recently, the Court of Honor at Soldiers Memorial listed 214 names of St. Louisans who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War. That changes this weekend with a special observation of 254 newly identified fallen soldiers.

Director of Soldiers Memorial Mark Sundlov told St. Louis on the Air that the Court of Honor update to the Vietnam War memorial took decades of research, advancement in DNA technology, accessible databases and grassroots efforts.

Mark Sundlov is the director of Soldiers Memorial
Miya Norfleet
St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Sundlov is the director of Soldiers Memorial

“Unfortunately the federal government [is unable] to provide… a list of everybody who was killed in the Vietnam War from St. Louis,” he said.

The names of the newly identified soldiers will have a permanent place in the Soldiers Memorial, presented on additional panels made of rose granite.

Ret. Air Force Col. Patricia Blassie plans on attending Soldiers Memorial’s Memorial Day observation this weekend with her siblings. Their eldest brother, Lt. Michael Blassie, served in the Vietnam War as a pilot in the Air Force. In May 1972, his plane was shot down in enemy territory, and the Blassie family was told that his remains were not recovered. That is, until the family got a tip that Michael’s remains were entered in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., in 1984. The revelation led the Blassie matriarch “on a mission.”

“She was resolved to find [Michael],” Patricia Blassie said. “And with the circumstantial evidence at that time … the government honored our request to disinter those remains to do DNA testing. They took my mother’s blood so that she could identify her son and give her son back a name.”

Sundlov said that the Blassie’s story is, unfortunately, common.

“The prisoner of war, missing in action legacy of the Vietnam War is one that’s probably unparalleled. There are families all across the country whose children were labeled as ‘missing in action,’” he said. “This unknowingness of what happened to them…leaves that gap open for grieving. How do you help close that?”

At this year’s observance event at Soldiers Memorial, Sundlov hopes that other St. Louisans are able to pay respects to the fallen soldiers and their remaining families.

“For me as a veteran, and just as a community member, I think that it's our responsibility to honor and to remember these individuals, both on their personal level, but then also creating the space for families.”

For more on how the advancement of DNA and technology helps Gold Star Families find closure, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

As St. Louis’ Soldiers Memorial adds 254 names, Gold Star families grieve, and remember

Related Event
What: Memorial Day Observance
When: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. May 29
Where: Soldiers Memorial, 1315 Chestnut St., St. Louis, MO 63103

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."