Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
She found the military dress uniform in the closet of a house being emptied for sale.
Too much time has passed – she reckons maybe eight to 10 years now – that she doesn’t remember a lot of the specifics about how she came to be the custodian of the uniform, still in excellent condition, medals gleaming, ribbons crisp, as good as she found it in that bedroom closet in a house somewhere off Barcelona in the South Valley.
“These people were having a yard sale and I stopped by to look around,” Debbie Garcia said. “I took the people to be the owners and they were getting rid of everything. They had apparently rented it out and the last people had been there for a while and then, all of a sudden, took off.”
Items were stacked outside – furniture, clothes, a bed, a table, a smattering of toys. Items inside the house were also for sale, including clothing still hanging in the closet.
Her eye went immediately to the uniform, a blue Air Force service dress coat with shoulder boards, a fruit salad of bars and medals, and the five-striped sleeve chevron depicting the rank of technical sergeant.
The uniform also had a name tag: Lawing.
That wasn’t the only item bearing that name. Inside one of the pockets, Garcia found a bundle of old identification cards for two men with the last name of Lawing. One was Hugh L. Lawing, an older man who, when the listed birthdate was calculated, would be 108.
The other was James D. Lawing, who she figured was the owner of the jacket because of several identification cards from the Armed Forces of the United States. They were old cards, the most recent one with an expiration date of Dec. 17, 2006, listing Lawing as a TSGT/RET, a retired technical sergeant.
From the cards, she could witness a lifetime of service, the photos on the IDs showing the aging well of a young man over the years through his military career. Lawing had also been connected with Boeing, TRW and GenCorp Aerojet, judging from the ID cards.
He had a Florida gun permit that had expired in 1984 and a Missouri driver’s license that had expired in 2005.
According to the listed birthdate, he would be 74 now.
For years, Garcia has tried to find Lawing to give him back his jacket. She wondered how it ended up in that closet in that home in the South Valley. She wondered how Lawing had come to be in 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 don’t have records that far back and they couldn’t help me. They told me to just throw it away.”
But she couldn’t do that.
“My dad and my brother were both in the Army and I know what those medals would mean to them,” she said. “When you serve your country, it matters. You don’t just throw all that away.”
So she kept looking. But she admits 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 is no longer alive, perhaps his children or relatives would like this back,” she said.
From my search, I learned that Hugh Lawing had been a well-known photographer in Batavia, New York. He married Laura May Wilkie in 1937 and the two eventually made their home in St. Louis.
James was their son. He was 16 when his mother died from complications of diabetes.
Hugh lived out his last days in an assisted living home in St. Charles, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He died in 2006 at age 93.
Information about James Lawing was harder to come by. Other than the ID cards and badges in the Air Force jacket pocket, he had very little in the way of a paper trail.
But I think I found him, living in a high rise on Florida’s east coast. I spoke with the front desk staff of the condo complex, who confirmed he lives there. She said she would relay a message to him for me. I have also left several messages for him, but it appears his cellphone is turned off. Emails were returned as undeliverable. Because I have yet to speak to him, I am keeping his current location vague, so my dear sleuths among you need not try to track him down unless you know him personally.
Someday – soon, I hope – we will unlock the mystery of how the Air Force jacket and all the IDs came to be hanging in a South Valley closet. Someday, Garcia will get her chance to return that jacket to its rightful owner, if he wants it.
But what I’ve found is a woman who cared enough to try so hard for so long to honor a military man. She felt it was her duty to take care of a stranger’s belongings. She believed it was right to honor the symbol of his service, rather than to just toss 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 front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.