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Memorial found, but family still troubled

Published Feb. 23, 2006
Updated Feb. 23, 2006

For days, the Aviles family wondered what happened to the roadside memorial for their son Andy, a Marine killed in Iraq.

It disappeared just before Valentine's Day from the median of S Dale Mabry Highway, near the entrance to MacDill Air Force Base, where it had been for nearly three years.

MacDill Air Force Base officials said they didn't take it. Tampa city workers said it wasn't them. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation said they didn't have it.

On Wednesday, the mystery was solved.

The poster-sized framed portrait of Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Aviles, and the bricks that surrounded it, turned up in back of a DOT maintenance yard in east Tampa.

"It was a miscommunication. We did not think we had pulled up the memorial but it was on one of our crews' trucks and we didn't realize it," said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Transportation Department.

Harvey Hunt, a state maintenance engineer, walked into the yard and saw the missing picture Tuesday. He knew right away it was Andy Aviles.

The portrait was at the end of a line of handmade memorials and real estate boxes DOT had plucked from roadsides. The concrete memorials could damage a car, Hunt said.

That's why a maintenance crew picked up Andy Aviles' memorial. It had become a safety hazard, Carson said.

Initially, she said DOT didn't take it. But that was a mistake, she said. It had been in the back of a crew's truck.

She said the visit by President Bush to MacDill Air Force Base on Friday had nothing to do with the crew picking it up.

But Andy's father Oscar Aviles questions: Why now?

"It hasn't been a road hazard for three years," he said. "Why has it all the sudden become a road hazard?"

He said he wonders what the workers felt as they uprooted his son's picture, and why a week went by with no word. It made for sleepless nights and anxious days while the memorial was missing, he said.

"You hate to think your son's picture is thrown somewhere," said Andy Aviles' mother, Norma. Many of his friends have called to voice their outrage.

"The thing is, you try to grab hold of something," Norma Aviles said.

The DOT attempts to contact families to return items with names on them, Carson said. But it is sometimes difficult to track them down, she said.

Aviles family members said they've been told that someone from DOT will bring the photograph back today.

Carson said crews make their own judgment calls as to whether and when to pick up roadside memorials. But the bottom line is that the memorial can't be returned to the site.

"It will not be allowed to be in the median," Carson said. "It's not a safe place."

Stationed in Ramadi, Iraq, Andy Aviles' friend Army Spc. Frank Rodriguez knows how much a picture of Aviles is worth.

"I carry a picture of him everywhere I go, especially when I leave camp on a mission," he said. "I know he's been watching over me from above and has pulled me out of some tight situations."

He said he talks to Aviles at night, "asking for guidance and the will power to get me through hard times. He was a soldier like myself, but the difference is he gave the ultimate sacrifice."