For many Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to honor our country's brave service
members in a day of appreciation and tribute for their service and sacrifice on behalf of a grateful nation.
For others, the long holiday weekend marks the official start of summer sprinkled with parades, picnics, and family get-togethers.
For a few gold star families like mine, it is a somber day of personal reflection and remembrance.
My hero dad, Robert M. Dowling, was a young man from Chehalis, Washington, who
heeded the call to war in 1965. He was a skilled helicopter pilot who led daring missions in Vietnam. He was a young husband and father, and a decorated war hero, who gave his life at age 27 in January 1966 trying to save the lives of his men.
For my mom, Mary Dowling, my siblings and I, his death has been a sad marker in our lives, defining every milestone with his absence and coloring our family's story with a heartbreaking, never-ending legacy of grief.
My mom's life has been especially challenging since his death. She became a widow with four young children at age 26 and never remarried. Now 84, she visits his grave at Fort Lewis Cemetery several times a year to pay respects, as she will do again on this Memorial Day as she has done every Memorial Day for 57 years.
But this year Memorial Day will be markedly different for my mom. Instead of being
comforted by the fact that her final resting place will be next to my dad at Fort Lewis
Cemetery in her own grave with her own headstone — something she has counted on for nearly all of her adult life — she will face the stunning reality that someone else was recently secretly buried in her long-reserved grave.
It raises the specter that promises made to gold star families can apparently be broken with ease and without accountability. The Army's unwarranted taking of her grave is a blatant affront to their own precepts of honor, integrity, duty, etc. — as well as to the idea of basic common decency.
Army officials didn't even have the courtesy to let my mom know that they planned to
take and reassign her grave after 56 years. Instead, last Veterans Day, when my mom placed flowers on my father's grave, she literally stumbled onto a freshly turned grave and temporary marker in her long-reserved place — the grave that the Army promised would be hers one day.
Standing there alone, devastated and in shock, she didn't know what to do or where to turn.
Since then, Fort Lewis and National Army Cemetery officials have provided few answers, stonewalling our requests for information and rejecting her claim to the plot, denying that she ever had a valid reservation "from any era."
Despite a preponderance of evidence, including the fact that my mom found the original onion-skin copy of her reservation for plot 2F9 dated January 1966, featuring the prescient advice from the Fort Lewis Mortuary Clerk "to keep a copy of the letter as proof of your reservation," Army officials adamantly and inexplicably refuse to correct the situation and return my mom's plot to her.
So, when my mom enters the Fort Lewis cemetery on this Memorial Day, she'll pass the place where an official map of the cemetery was once posted. For decades her name was emblazoned in bold letters on the map, confirming her reservation (and her right under law) to be buried next to my dad one day — just like dozens of other gold star spouses.
Over the years, as reserved spaces were claimed, my mom held one of the last remaining reserved plots in the cemetery, until it was abruptly taken and mysteriously reassigned last October. Army officials removed the map after my mom's discovery of a stranger buried in her place. Now there's just a blank space where the map was once posted, perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of the need to hide what occurred.
As my mom makes her way to my dad's grave at Section 2, Row F and plot 8 on Monday, she'll pass by many other graves of veterans buried by their spouses, including the veteran who died just two weeks after my dad and whose wife was buried by his side with her own stone marker in 2021.
In close proximity, there is another Vietnam War era veteran's grave whose widow was buried next to him with her own headstone in 2022.
But on this Memorial Day, the solemn day of honoring the nation's fallen soldiers and their Gold Star families, including my hero dad, my mom faces a broken promise so egregious that it calls for immediate correction and questions the very foundation of the promises we make to military personnel and their families in exchange for their service and sacrifice.
As she places a bouquet of flowers on my father's grave, she'll have the gut-wrenching experience of knowing that a stranger is buried in her plot, its permanence now solidified with a stone marker.
Nothing about this case makes sense. Why did the Army surreptitiously target my mom's grave and reassign it after 56 years?
Why are they discounting the clear evidence of her reservation — her original documents, her testimony of filling out periodic reservation forms, her name clearly marked on official maps — not to mention Army rules that dictate that Vietnam War era spouses with reservations before May 1, 1975 are entitled to be buried next to their husbands?
Who is the person who now occupies her grave, and how did he get there? And why are they adamantly refuse to correct this debacle and give my mom back her grave?
It's obvious that this is not a simple case of an Army "record-keeping error" or of my
mom's failure to provide valid records and/or her unfounded expectation that she would one day have her own grave with her own headstone – as Army officials now assert.
We believe that the taking of my mom's grave — a gold star widow who relied on the Army's promise since 1966 regarding her burial plot — was a calculated and deliberate act involving the coordination between Army officials and the family of the deceased person who now occupies my mom's grave.
There is much more to be learned about how and why this happened and what personal and professional relationships among officials led them to breach Army protocols to covertly purloin my mom's grave.
When my dad was shot down over the South China sea on Jan. 12, 1966, and spent his last heroic minutes waving off rescuers so that his co-pilot and wingman could be saved, he exhibited selfless bravery of the highest order.
In exchange for his heroism and ultimate sacrifice, my mom deserves to be treated with the same respect afforded to every other Vietnam War-era spouse buried in her own grave with her own headstone next to her husband.
When Army officials made the egregious decision to take my mom's grave after 56 years in favor of an unnamed "eligible veteran," they committed the most serious breach of a sacred trust and promise that could be perpetrated on a gold star family. It is morally reprehensible and just plain wrong.
On this Memorial Day, we need to maintain our vigilance and ensure that the promises made to the nation's veterans and gold star families are not just meaningless bromides but promises we keep.
Laura Dowling is the daughter of CWO Robert M. Dowling and Mary Dowling. She is the former chief florist at the White House and an author and speaker.
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