Honoring the Symbol of a Person’s Service »Albuquerque Journal
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She found the military uniform in the closet of a house that was being emptied for sale.
Too much time has passed – she’s guessing maybe eight to ten years now – that she can’t remember many details of how she became the guardian of the uniform, still in excellent condition, medals shiny, ribbons crisp as well the way she found it in that bedroom closet in a house somewhere outside Barcelona in the South Valley.
“These people had a flea market and I stopped by to look around,” said Debbie Garcia. “I made people the owners and they got rid of everything. They had apparently rented it out and the last people had been there for a while and then suddenly flew off. “
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There was a pile of things outside – furniture, clothes, a bed, a table, a few toys. Items from the house were also sold, including clothes that were still hanging in the closet.
Her eyes immediately shifted to the uniform, a blue Air Force tuxedo with epaulettes, a fruit salad of bars and medals, and the chevron with five striped sleeves that represented the rank of technical sergeant.
The uniform also had a name tag: Lawing.
It wasn’t the only item with that name. In one of the pockets Garcia found a wad of old ID cards for two men with the surname Lawing. One was Hugh L. Lawing, an elderly man who, if the given date of birth was calculated, would be 108 years old.
The other was James D. Lawing, whom she believed to be the owner of the jacket based on several U.S. Army IDs. They were old cards, the latest with an expiration date of December 17, 2006, that listed Lawing as TSGT / RET, a retired technical sergeant.
From the cards she could read a lifelong service, the photos on the ID cards showed the aging of a young man over the course of his military career. Lawing had also been linked to Boeing, TRW and GenCorp Aerojet, according to IDs.
He had a Florida gun license that expired in 1984 and a Missouri driver’s license that expired in 2005.
According to the given date of birth, he would now be 74 years old.
Garcia spent years trying to find Lawing to give him back his jacket. She wondered how it had ended up in that closet in that South Valley house. She wondered how Lawing got to Albuquerque. None of the IDs indicated a local connection.
“So I thought maybe Kirtland Air Force Base,” she said. “But when I called, they said they didn’t have any records and couldn’t help me. They told me to just throw it away. “
But she couldn’t.
“My father and brother were both in the army and I know what those medals would mean to them,” she said. “If you serve your country, it matters. You don’t just throw all that away. “
So she kept looking. But she admits that she doesn’t know much about how to search for a person, how to navigate the internet. So she asked me to help.
“If he’s no longer alive, his children or relatives may want that back,” she said.
In doing research, I learned that Hugh Lawing was a well-known photographer in Batavia, New York. He married Laura May Wilkie in 1937 and the two eventually settled in St. Louis.
James was her son. He was 16 years old when his mother died of complications from diabetes.
Hugh spent his final days in an assisted living home in a suburb of St. Louis, St. Charles, Missouri. He died in 2006 at the age of 93.
Information on James Lawing was more difficult to come by. Apart from the IDs and badges in the Air Force jacket pocket, there was hardly a trace of paper on it.
But I think I found him while he was living in a high-rise building on Florida’s east coast. I spoke to the front desk staff at the apartment complex who confirmed that he lived there. She said she would send him a message for me. I also left him several messages, but apparently his cell phone is turned off. Emails were returned as undeliverable. Since I haven’t spoken to him yet, I’m keeping his current whereabouts vague so that my dear detectives among you don’t have to try to track him down unless you know him personally.
Someday – hopefully soon – we’ll reveal the secret of how the Air Force jacket and all the IDs were hung in a closet in South Valley. One day Garcia will have the chance to return the jacket to its rightful owner if he wants it.
But what I found is a woman who went to so much trouble to honor a military man for so long. She felt it was her duty to look after a stranger’s belongings. She felt it was right to honor the symbol of his service rather than simply throwing it away.
No matter who he is or what we learn about him and the jacket, Garcia is the real find here.
UpFront is a news and opinion column on the front page. You can reach Joline at 730-2793, [email protected], Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.