Vilma Baragona stood a few steps away from the light blue casket. • A member of the honor guard knelt before her, handing her a neatly folded flag. • She had never met the Army private whose remains lay inside the casket. She was no long lost relative. Until recently, she had never even heard of Lawrence Davis Jr. • But on Tuesday, the 78-year-old became a stand-in for the family nobody could find.
That's what was missing when Davis was found dead in 2004 at age 85. Without family or any loved ones, the elderly Avon Park man's body was buried in a shallow grave inside a cardboard box.
He might still be there if not for maintenance workers.
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Not much is known about Davis or his service.
What is known: This shouldn't have happened to him.
Davis was reported missing in August 2002 when he was 83. In November 2004, a juvenile found a skull near a lake. A little less than a month later, more bones turned up in the area.
His remains were taken to the medical examiner's office, where he was eventually identified. He was transported to the cemetery in a cardboard box — the same box he was buried in.
Davis remained there until earlier this year when he was discovered by maintenance workers who were readjusting a headstone
That injustice was finally righted on Tuesday morning when he was given a proper burial and military ceremony at Florida National Cemetery.
"All veterans deserve a dignified burial place," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. "No veteran should have to have their final resting place be in a cardboard box."
A number of veterans, Patriot Guard Riders and other supporters showed up at the Tuesday morning ceremony. They said they were relieved and grateful, especially with his proper burial coming just before Independence Day.
Hank Butler never met Davis, but he felt for him.
"I just think he deserved a whole lot better than what he got," the 80-year-old Korean War veteran said. "It's unfortunate that it happened that way. It's really great he's finally getting what he deserved."
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News of Davis' improper burial spread throughout the state and nation, sparking outrage.
It's one of many cases recently revealed at the nation's cemeteries, including Arlington National Cemetery.
That cemetery was embroiled in a major scandal in recent years after reports of improperly marked graves.
"We've had a problem on some of our national cemeteries," Nelson said. "Mistakes are made from time to time."
Sens. Nelson and Marco Rubio are sponsoring the Dignified Burial of Veterans Act to combat the problem.
The legislation would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to review its burial standards and would authorize it to buy caskets or urns for veterans who don't have family and can't afford them.
The legislation will support re-examination of existing burials.
"You want to, whenever there is a foul-up, to find out about it," said Nelson, who expects the legislation to sail through. "That's why . . . we are requiring them to do a check and a recheck — an inventory to make sure this doesn't happen."
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Baragona and her husband had planned to show up for the ceremony honoring Davis.
They didn't expect to be part of it.
Two minutes before it began, Vilma and Dominic Baragona found out they would get to accept the flag that had draped the casket, a right usually reserved for family.
Vilma was stunned and honored. It also took her back.
"The memory came back from Arlington," she said.
In May 2003, one of her sons, then a lieutenant colonel in the Army, died in Iraq after an 18-wheeler fell on his Humvee as he was about to cross over into Kuwait. The 42-year-old was the only person in the vehicle who died.
About a month later, she and her family traveled to Arlington National Cemetery and accepted a flag.
"What an honor to actually receive the flag," said her husband, Dominic, also 78.
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Davis is buried in section 628 in the Florida National Cemetery.
The casket has a built-in mechanism that will make it virtually waterproof and air-tight.
Inside, he'll have a cloth pillow and bed, complete with springs.