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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.

Nate Morabito (WCNC)

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Published: 11:26 AM EDT May 11, 2023
Updated: 12:12 PM EDT May 12, 2023

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.

Credit: Hank Cramer

"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.

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