BUSHNELL, Fla. - Vilma Baragona stood a few steps 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 July 3, the 78-year-old Trumbull County native 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, Fla., man's body was buried in a shallow grave inside a cardboard box.
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Vilma and Dominic Baragona, formerly of Niles, already hang one flag in front of their Florida home to honor their son, Rocky, who was killed while serving in the military in Kuwait. They now have a flag in honor of a veteran who had no family or friends at his funeral.
He might still be there if not for maintenance workers.
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 maintenance workers adjusting a headstone discovered him.
That injustice was finally righted July 3 when he was given a proper burial and military ceremony at Florida National Cemetery.
Baragona and her husband had planned to show up for the ceremony honoring Davis. They just didn't expect to be part of it.
Two minutes before it began, Vilma and Dominic Baragona learned 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.
It wasn't the first flag she was given from a formal military burial.
In May 2003, one of her sons, Dominic ''Rocky'' Baragona, who commanded the 19th Maintenance Battalion out of Fort Sill, Okla., was riding with the battalion to Kuwait City to await a flight back to the United States. A Kuwaiti tractor-trailer jackknifed on the road and collided with Baragona's Humvee, killing him instantly.
The 42-year-old Niles native was the only person in the vehicle who died.
''It wasn't combat related; it was a damn truck accident,'' his brother, Tony Baragona, said shortly afterward. ''It could have happened in Ohio.''
About a month later, Vilma and her family traveled to Arlington National Cemetery and accepted a flag.
''What an honor to actually receive the flag,'' said Dominic, also 78.
The Baragonas still fly the flag they were given in honor of their son in front of their Florida home.
After their son's death, the couple also was instrumental in pushing for legislation that holds foreign contractors liable for crashes and accidents like the one their son died in. The Baragonas testified before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee in support of a law that would make foreign military contractors subject to U.S. laws.
They won a settlement in 2007 in a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court over the death of their son, a West Point graduate. But the $4.9 million settlement was set aside when an appellate court said the case lacked jurisdiction since a Kuwaiti contractor was involved in the crash.
A version of what was the Lt. Col. Dominic ''Rocky'' Baragona Justice for American Heroes Harmed by Contractors Act still remains in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee.
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 airtight.
Inside, he'll have a cloth pillow and bed, complete with springs.
Valentine is a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times.
Tribune Chronicle reporter Christopher Bobby contributed to this report.