Newly discovered documents bolster a war widow's claim to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord cemetery plot she was promised decades ago but recently found someone buried in. Two Washington state U.S. representatives now are involved in the issue with one opening an inquiry. The Army, meanwhile, refuses to return the plot.
Last Veterans Day, Mary Dowling, 83, discovered someone buried in the plot she had reserved for 56 years at the Fort Lewis Post Cemetery. She was making one of her frequent visits to the adjoining plot which is the grave of her husband, Vietnam War hero Robert Dowling.
Despite several meetings with the Army, Dowling and the cemetery division have been unable to reconcile their differences. The Army has offered several solutions, which included a side-by-side burial to her husband's casket but no headstone.
Dowling has stood firm that she wants the plot that now holds the cremains of a serviceman buried there in October.
The Army has said it had no record that Dowling had a reservation despite her name on a cemetery map posted outside the graveyard's entrance and an online map showing two grave plots. The physical map disappeared in December and the online map was removed from the cemetery website a few hours after The News Tribune first reported on the dispute.
The Army has maintained that regulations prevent it from disinterring the remains of the serviceman buried in Dowling's plot and re-interring them in another.
After another meeting Feb. 16 at which neither the family nor the Army would alter their positions, Dowling's family urged the Tenino woman to once again look through her records. The next day, she found two documents from the Army that confirm she had a reserved plot next to her husband.
In a letter dated Jan. 21, 1966 and sent to Dowling, mortuary officer Marlys Heady asks Dowling to sign an enclosed document confirming her reservation for the plot in Section 2, Row F, Lot 9 and return it to the Army.
"The carbon copy is for your files," Heady wrote. "It would be a good idea to keep it with your important papers, as it is a record of your reservation in the Fort Lewis Post Cemetery."
Photos of both documents have been sent to the Army, according to Dowling's daughter, Laura Dowling. JBLM public information officer Joe Piek said Tuesday that the letters have been forwarded to the director of the Office of Army Cemeteries for review.
"It's now obvious that my mom has had a valid reservation for the burial plot next to my father at Fort Lewis Cemetery since 1966," Laura Dowling said Tuesday.
Now, two members of Washington's congressional delegation are involved with helping to end the stalemate.
A staffer with Rep. Marilyn Strickland, a 10th District Democrat, was present for the Feb. 16 telephone meeting with the Dowling family, their attorney, JBLM officials and national level Army Cemeteries personnel.
"The Office of Congresswoman Strickland has submitted an inquiry to the Department of the Army on this matter as requested by the constituent," Strickland spokesperson Sienna Miller said in an emailed statement to The News Tribune on Tuesday.
Although Mary Dowling doesn't live in Rep. Dan Newhouse's district, the 4th District Republican's office is also involved with helping resolve the issue.
"Obviously, it's a very difficult situation," Newhouse spokesperson Mike Marinella said Tuesday.
Newhouse was made aware of the situation by one of his staffers who is a Gold Star family member.
"He was deeply concerned about the situation," Marinella said of the staffer. "We're just hoping to help the situation in any possible way."
The Dowling family said it still has not been given an explanation of how the reservation for Mary Dowling's plot was lost.
"It remains unclear how or why the Army made the decision to renege on their promise to my mom, to take away her plot and reassign it to someone else after almost 57 years," Laura Dowling said.
The family hopes Strickland's inquiry will resolve the impasse.