Grave mistake: Army widow discovers burial plot next to her husband was given to someone else
For 56 years, Mary Dowling thought she'd be buried in a military plot next to her husband ... until the spot was given away. Here's what the Army has to say.
'It's about promises'
When he was just 4 years old, Bobby Dowling made a promise to his father. Now 62, he's intent on keeping his word.
Army opens review
The Army conducted a thorough review after the Dowlings shared their concerns. Here's what they found.
Lawmakers from North Carolina to Washington state are now pressing the military for answers.
The Army responds
'He was handsome and very kind'
Robert Dowling and his wife were married for seven years before his death. While life has gone on without him, Mary Dowling still thinks about her late husband.
For 56 years, Mary Dowling took comfort in knowing she'd one day share a final resting place with her husband who was killed during the Vietnam War.
That certainty reassured the widow during her regular visits to Camp Lewis Post Cemetery, just south of Tacoma, Washington, but on Veterans Day she walked away from her husband's grave feeling heartbroken and insecure.
"I was terribly shocked," Dowling told WCNC Charlotte of what she discovered. "I was upset and I really didn't know what to do."
Chief Warrant Officer Robert Dowling died, alongside his entire crew, when the helicopter he piloted was shot down in the South China Sea on Jan. 12, 1966.
Just a week-and-a-half after his death, Dowling's wife received a document confirming her desire to be buried next to him upon her death. An accompanying letter, signed by the mortuary clerk, urged her to keep a copy for her records since "it is a record of (her) reservation."
The Army failed to follow through with her wishes. Records show the Army allowed for a veteran's urn burial in October 2022 on the plot promised to Dowling.
"She went to go visit, pay respects last Veterans Day," their son Bobby Dowling said. "When she placed the flowers on my father's grave, she realized that the grassy plot that was next to his had been taken by someone else's burial. There was now a permanent marker in her reserved spot, a spot that had been reversed for her for 56 years. She was devastated."
Dowling reached out to WCNC Charlotte seeking a solution.
'It's about promises': When he was just 4 years old, Bobby Dowling made a promise to his father. Now 62, he's intent on keeping his word.
Dressed in a uniform just like his father, 4-year-old Bobby Dowling made a promise to his dad right before he left for Vietnam.
"The last thing my dad told me before he went to war was. 'Bobby, I'm going to war. I may not be back. I need you to take care of your mom and your sisters if I don't make it back,'" Dowling recalled. "I saluted him and I said, 'Yes sir.'"
Now 62 and living in Charlotte, the Gold Star son is intent on keeping his word.
"I think he's with me still in this process. I feel it," Dowling said. "I feel like he's saying, 'Don't let this go.'"
Up until recently, a grave locator map at the cemetery's entrance and on the cemetery's own website still showed two Dowling grave spaces in the nearly full cemetery.
Beyond that, Mary Dowling said for years after her husband's death, she mailed in paperwork annually confirming that she hadn't remarried and that she still wanted to be buried next to him.
"It's about promises," her son said. "If this can happen to a Gold Star family like mine and a Gold Star mother like my mom, I am really concerned for those that have loved ones in the military or have spouses of loved ones that have served."
Army opens review: The Army conducted a thorough review after the Dowlings shared their concerns. Here's what they found.
In response to Dowling's concerns, the Army conducted a thorough review in early 2023, which concluded Robert Dowling's Casket "was intentionally interred in the right half of the grave plot allowing sufficient space to accommodate a casket for Mrs. Dowling at her time of need."
However, that same review determined the longtime cemetery map listing two Dowling plots was "inaccurate and unreliable." In addition, the Army ruled "there is no original record" linked to the plot in question, finding "no evidence of a properly documented reservation for Mrs. Mary F. Dowling."
The Army memo goes on to suggest the map and 1966 letter "could reasonably mislead Mrs. Dowling to believe she had a properly reserved separate grave reservation."
"The Army regrets any errors in record keeping which resulted in an expectation of a separate grave being reserved for Mrs. Mary Dowling until her time of need," Office of Army Cemeteries Director Renea C. Yates wrote.
Despite the Army's conclusion and the October 2022 urn burial of another veteran, the director said there is "sufficient space" for Dowling to be buried next to her husband.
The Dowlings say that response ignores the fact she won't get a headstone and she'll die without ever knowing how and why this occurred.
"I think this is actually killing her," her son said. "That doesn't negate this promise that was provided to my mom at age 26 when my father, age 27, was killed in Vietnam. Honestly, I think he'd be upset."
Years ago, the Army allowed qualified spouses to reserve graves in writing long before their deaths. Today, eligibility is determined upon death.
The Army maintains, even if Dowling had passed away before 2022, she "would not have been automatically interred in her own individual grave as there is no authoritative document that entitles the use of a new grave for this derivatively eligible spouse."
Army regulations dictate the veteran currently buried next to Dowling's husband cannot be disinterred, since internments are considered "permanent and final."
Congress intervenes: Lawmakers from North Carolina to Washington state are now pressing the military for answers.
Lawmakers from North Carolina to Washington state are now asking questions on behalf of the family, including Sen. Ted Budd, a Republican from North Carolina.
"We can confirm that our office is in contact with the Dowling family and are working through the process of addressing this issue with the U.S. Army," a spokesperson for the senator told WCNC Charlotte. "Our office will do everything we can to assist in this matter."
In almost identical letters to Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Marilyn Strickland, the Army apologized "for the distress" caused to this family, but echoed the same talking points found in its memo.
The Army responds:
In response to WCNC Charlotte's series of questions, the Army repeated a similar message.
"The Army wants to first acknowledge Chief Warrant Officer Robert Dowling's extraordinary service and sacrifice to our nation and apologize for any distress caused to Mary Dowling and her family as a result of this difficult situation," an initial statement read. "We sincerely regret any error which resulted in an expectation of a separate grave being reserved for Ms. Dowling. We are committed to ensuring the interment of Mrs. Dowling in the same grave with her husband at her time of need just similar to Gold Star spouses at all national cemeteries and will continue to communicate directly with her to come to a resolution."
WCNC Charlotte pushed back since the original statement ignored the specific question of how something like this could occur.
"While we do not doubt Mrs. Dowling's claims of a reservation and have compassion for her and her family during this difficult time, the Army conducted a 100% accountability of all authoritative burial records and found no documents which indicated a reservation for Mrs. Dowling in a separate grave from her husband," Office of Army Cemeteries Chief of Public Affairs Kerry L. Meeker replied. "All Camp Lewis Post cemetery burial documents, to include the official reservation cards on file, were uploaded into an official burial management system in August 2022. This review, in accordance with Army Regulation, resulted in the grave she desires to be available for the assignment to another eligible veteran. We remain committed to ensuring the interment of Mrs. Dowling in the same grave with her husband at her time of need."
Meeker clarified the 1966 letter, considered a "record" at the time, is not an official record after all.
"The document provided by the family is an unsigned Request for Burial of the deceased (CW Dowling) from 1966 and includes a desire for a reservation of the specific grave but also cautions of the temporary nature of the cemetery and restrictions which limit the burial therein," Meeker said. "Based upon all the documents available, the Army has no official record of an approved reservation for an individual grave reserved for Mrs. Dowling."
'He was handsome and very kind': Robert Dowling and his wife were married for seven years before his death. While life has gone on without him, Mary Dowling still thinks about her late husband.
Before Robert Dowling's death, he and his wife had been married for just seven years. While she's adjusted to life without him, Dowling said she still thinks about her husband all the time.
"He had such a good sense of humor and he was handsome and very kind," the widow said. "He was just a special person."
Dowling, now 84, says in the many decades after his death, she felt fully supported by the Army, but that changed on Veterans Day.
"It just makes me feel alone and kind of insecure about what's going to happen," she said. "It's not a good feeling."
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