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Mary Dowling, now age 83, never remarried after her husband Robert Dowling was killed in Vietnam on Jan. 12, 1966. Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day for 56 years, she brought flowers to her husband’s grave. She planned on being buried one day in a plot next to Bob’s grave.

However, last November, Mary visited as usual, only to notice a temporary grave marker and freshly dug earth in the plot next to her husband’s resting place. Someone else had been buried there.

A Tragic Death

Robert Dowling, a UH-1B Huey pilot from Centralia, Wash., was flying a mission along the South Vietnamese coast on Jan. 12, 1966, when he saw what appeared to be a body on the beach. He realized too late that it was a dummy—a trap set by the Viet Cong. Dowling’s chopper was shot down over the water.

Dowling and his co-pilot managed to emerge from the sinking helicopter. However, passing up the opportunity to be rescued to allow his co-pilot to be saved first, Dowling was killed by a hammerhead shark.

Robert Dowling was killed in Vietnam after the Viet Cong lured his helicopter into a trap. (Courtesy VVMF Wall of Faces Memorial)

Dowling’s remains were buried at the cemetery at Fort Lewis, Wash. near where he and his wife of seven years, Mary, had lived when he first joined the Army. Every year Fort Lewis, later Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), sent Mary a letter asking if she wished to retain the plot next to her husband’s grave. Mary always answered “yes.” Once those letters stopped arriving, Mary’s four adult children would periodically confirm with JBLM that Mary’s plot was secure.

An Error

Shocked to discover someone else buried in the plot, Mary and her family reached out immediately to JBLM. In meetings with Mary and her children over the past few months, the Army admitted its error.

In a statement to Tacoma’s News Tribune newspaper, a JBLM representative acknowledged that Mary’s reservation had been lost and expressed the Army’s regret. The main sticking point is that, by Army regulations, an interment is considered “final and permanent,” and JBLM is unwilling to move the serviceman currently in Mary’s grave.

Complicating matters further is the fact that there is very little room in the plot next to Bob’s. Placing a casket there risks disturbing other remains. The plot is currently occupied with cremated remains due to the lack of space.

Possible Solutions

The Army initially offered Mary the option of being buried in a different plot nearby or having her casket (or cremated remains) placed on top of her husband’s. The Army also re-examined the space in the burial plots and realized there is enough room for Mary’s casket to fit beside her husband’s. Thus JBLM has recently offered a new solution: a side-by-side burial, but with Mary’s name etched on Bob’s headstone instead of her own.

Mary has rejected all these options, holding firm in the belief the Army should honor its commitment; she wants the plot back. The Army is still negotiating with Mary and her family. Despite JBLM’s good-faith efforts to resolve the issue, Mary is adamant the Army keep their promise to a Gold Star family made nearly 60 years ago.

Nearly lost in the controversy is the lingering toll of Bob’s death. In an article in the Centralia Chronicle from 2006, his widow Mary said, “I think of him still all the time. Forty years doesn’t change it. It could be five years. It doesn’t matter.”