He lost everything.
James Lawing is a world traveler, moving about the globe both during his military service and afterward. As he tells me his story, he is happily ensconced in Central America.
About 16 years ago, he scooted around the United States in a motor home. Lawing, a gregarious man who can talk endlessly to anybody with ease, was headed to Los Angeles to spend time with a friend when he stopped in El Paso.
He was chatting in a restaurant with a few new buddies when he looked out the window and realized that his motor home was no longer parked outside.
“My entire life was gone,” he said.
That motor home was not just his transportation, but his home, and inside was almost all of his belongings – family photos, childhood mementos, clothing, weapons, tools, items from his aged father, identification documents, military records, his blue Air Force service dress coat replete with bars and medals, and the five-striped sleeve chevron depicting the rank of technical sergeant.
Yes, that Air Force coat.
If you read this column last Wednesday, you know that it was found some eight to 10 years ago in a bedroom closet in the South Valley. Albuquerque resident Debbie Garcia had picked it up at a yard sale at the house and had held onto it all these years, hoping someday to return it to its rightful owner.
That someday is soon.
“I’m just so happy about this,” Garcia said.
So is Lawing, though perhaps he’s also a little more surprised.
“I don’t know how she found it,” he said. “I don’t know how you found me.”
After the theft, which occurred around 2005, Lawing searched for his things. Credit cards left in the motor home were tracked to Albuquerque, where they were used at several Walmart stores and gas stations.
Lawing visited each one, hoping to track down his items. He also went to swap meets in Albuquerque searching for his things. But nothing was ever recovered.
Years later, Garcia stumbled upon the yard sale. She can’t remember the exact location other than it was somewhere off Barcelona SW and that the people holding the yard sale were getting rid of all the items left in the home, apparently by former renters who had left suddenly, to prepare the house for sale.
She didn’t think much about it then, but among the vehicles parked at the home was a motor home.
She got the jacket, which also had numerous identification cards and medals stuffed in the pocket, for free. She had a name and the information listed on all the IDs, but her efforts to find Lawing went nowhere.
Still, she refused to throw the jacket away because she said the uniform honored the symbol of a man’s service and that’s something to honor, not haul away to the dump.
So she asked me to find him. My search led to a condo in Florida, but repeated calls went immediately to voicemail. A message left at the condo complex for him went unanswered.
Enter Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit whose mission is to return lost, stolen and misplaced military medals of valor to veterans or their families. In the past decade, the organization has returned more than 850 military items. A reader sent the column to the organization and operations director Erin Faith Allen offered to help search for Lawing.
Within an hour after we spoke Wednesday, she had contacted a niece, who then contacted her mother, who then contacted her brother, who is James Lawing.
He contacted me Wednesday evening. And, now, he is contacting Garcia.
Arrangements will be made shortly to return his possessions to him. It cannot replace everything he lost in that 2005 theft, but maybe it will give him some comfort, not just in having his jacket returned, but also in knowing how much it mattered to an Albuquerque woman – and to those of you who helped spread the word – to honor the service of a stranger.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793 or firstname.lastname@example.org.