Veteran returns to mark grave of daughter lost 40 years ago
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Forty-four years ago, a premature baby died an hour and 34 minutes after she was born.
Her grieving parents, a young military couple, buried her in an unmarked grave in a Fayetteville city-owned cemetery and moved away. They lost track of the grave as they went through other hardships over the years.
This weekend, former soldier Benito Garcia and his family will return to the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg community to see a stone placed over Yvonne Angelica Garcia's resting place in the babies section of Fayetteville's Northside Cemetery on Brinkley Street.
The service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday. It would have been Yvonne's 44th birthday.
"We will close the loop, as it were," said Pete Pepper, who was Garcia's company commander when they served together in Vietnam in the 1960s.
Garcia had visited Fayetteville over the years and hoped to find Yvonne's grave, he said, but he didn't know where to begin.
When he returned last year for the city's Heroes Homecoming celebration for Vietnam veterans, Garcia mentioned it to a staff person who brought it to Mayor Tony Chavonne's attention.
"So we went about searching all of our records and we got with the register of deeds, Lee Warren, and the courthouse," Chavonne said. "And the Parks and Rec Department manages all the grave sites, and we found the unmarked grave of that young child over off North Street, really remote cemetery here."
Cemetery supervisor Damon Hickmon said it took him a day or two to track it down. He found reference to the burial site in an old ledger labeled "Northside Baby Spaces." The handwritten entries date to 1964.
Many of the graves in the babies section of the cemetery lack markers.
It can be a challenge to puzzle out the ledger entries to determine where the graves are, Hickmon said. They often have errors. This grave's entry said the baby was buried on Nov. 31, 1968 — though November has only 30 days. It mislabeled which section of the cemetery the baby was buried in, and it misspelled the name as "Baby Garica."
The ledger shows that the Garcias paid $5 for the burial space rights.
Two survey flags now mark the end of the grave, showing where the permanent marker will be placed on Saturday.
Once Hickmon found the grave site, the mayor, Garcia and a small group drove to the cemetery to see it. Garcia felt trepidation.
"I'm asking myself, 'Why, why am I putting myself through this?' and knowing all the time that it is something I had to do," he said. "It is just something that has hung over me, not knowing. Not knowing where she was or anything like that."
Pepper was with him.
"We get out, and there's a guy with a clipboard and the mayor. And his wife, Joanne, had a bouquet of flowers for Benito," Pepper said.
"As we walked forward, the cemetery director said, 'This is where your daughter's buried,' pointing to a place on the ground, unmarked," Pepper said. "Benito just collapsed."
"I don't know if it was relief or guilt. Or maybe both," Garcia said. "Relief at finally finding it. Guilt at not having done anything about it prior to this. So there were a lot of conflicting things."
"There were probably, maybe eight of us," Chavonne said. "And he said there were more people there that day than there were when he and his wife buried the child."
Garcia was a brave but troubled soldier, Pepper said, and his troubles followed him through his life. Garcia said he served time in prison for bank robbery in the 1970s and drug trafficking in the 1990s.
Now, Garcia said, he volunteers his time to help veterans and veterans' widows collect the benefits due them.
He also is one of the soldiers that Pepper featured in a documentary film, "Killing Memories," which recorded a reunion trip that Pepper, Garcia and three other veterans made to Vietnam several years ago.
The memorial service for the Garcia baby is the first of several activities to recap last year's Heroes Homecoming celebration.
People who wish to attend the service are asked to meet in the parking lot of the Airborne & Special Operations Museum downtown at 9:15 a.m. Cars will form a convoy to drive to the cemetery.
At noon and 1 p.m., "Heroes Homecoming: A Retrospective" will be shown at the airborne museum. The documentary by Moonlight Communications highlights last year's events.
At 2 p.m., "Killing Memories" will be shown. Admission to the films is free.
The 2012 Heroes Homecoming celebration runs Nov. 9-11 and will honor veterans of the Iraq War.