Family Fights For Honor Of 'Rogue' Vietnam General

Oct 13, 2012
Originally published on October 14, 2012 10:42 am

Gen. John D. Lavelle commanded the Seventh Air Force during the Vietnam War. He served five steps down the chain of command from President Nixon. In his oral history — recorded by an Air Force history officer in 1978 — he explained how, six years earlier, his life changed forever.

It started with a meeting with a Thai general, Dawee Chullasapya, who had charged Lavelle with overseeing an operation to destroy anti-aircraft guns in North Vietnam. It was a mission necessary to keep Thailand in the war.

"I said, 'Marshall Dawee, for every crew that gets one of those 130-millimeter guns, I'm sending them to Bangkok. And you, Dawee, are going to put on the biggest goddamned party Bangkok ever put on for each one of those troops,' " Lavelle said. "He said, 'It's a deal.' "

Lavelle's pilots eventually destroyed 11 guns. The mission was such a success, Lavelle got a wire saying that the Thai prime minister wanted to thank Lavelle himself.

"I also got a wire from [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Dale] Ryan the same day saying, 'Come home. You're fired.' "

Why Lavelle's career was cut short without warning is shrouded in executive and military secrecy that marked the end of a losing war. Seven years after Lavelle was fired, he would die of a heart attack — but not before a public shaming that left him a broken man. Forty years later, his family would still be looking for answers.

Not Going In Without A Chance

Lavelle had been in the military for more than three decades when he began to think there was a problem with the rules of engagement — one that was making it more difficult to win the war.

American fighter pilots were not authorized to fire on targets in North Vietnam unless they were fired on first or if there was an indication they were being tracked by enemy radar. This was known as being "activated against."

But there was a new type of Vietnamese radar that could track American planes without alerting radar detectors in U.S. cockpits. Unknown they were being tracked, American pilots were being shot down.

"One morning, about 2 o'clock in the morning, I was going through paperwork," Lavelle said. "Included in the paperwork were some letters the chaplain wrote and the commander signed — back to widows or wives of people missing in action.

"I had one I was signing to a wife of a pilot who had flown for me in the 50th Fighter Wing in Europe. I almost couldn't sign it. I could say to myself, 'The letter is a form letter, and it's a fake.' If we would just go in there aggressively and do the job we had to do instead of the phony rules we were playing with, there was no need for that guy to lose his life. And I resolved then that they weren't going in there without a chance."

'Do It, But Don't Say Anything'

After months of losing pilots in the tail end of 1971, Lavelle sent a request up the chain of command for a more liberal interpretation of the rules.

"Secretary [of Defense Melvin] Laird told me he agreed but the climate was just not right in Washington for any changes," Lavelle said. "He told me I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not come to Washington and ask him, under the political climate, to come out with an interpretation; I should make them in the field, and he would back me up."

What Lavelle didn't know was that changes were also being discussed in the Oval Office. On Feb. 3, 1972, Ellsworth Bunker, the ambassador to South Vietnam, explained to President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger why the Air Force needed greater authority to strike targets in North Vietnam.

His voice can be heard on recently released tapes of recordings from the Nixon White House.

"Now the authority is for — to bomb them when they fire at the aircraft," Bunker says. "Or when the radar's locked on. The problem is — that's late to start attacking."

But because of diplomatic pressures — Nixon's upcoming visit to China — the officials agreed it was a bad time for the U.S. to appear more aggressive in Vietnam. Nixon issued an OK for Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander in Vietnam, to authorize strikes without radar activation but to keep it off the books.

"I want you to tell Abrams," Nixon said, "to tell the military not to put out extensive briefings with regard to our military activities from now on until we get back from China. Do it, but don't say anything."

'I Never Saw Them'

But the truth was Lavelle had already been doing it. Ten days before that meeting in the Oval Office, Lavelle's pilots took out a runway in North Vietnam so an enemy bomber couldn't land.

"The mission was successful," Lavelle said. "The North Vietnamese called off the plan and actually turned the airplane around. In subsequent message traffic, [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] actually commended us for the mission."

But when the after-action report was issued, there was a problem. It indicated "No reaction" from enemy radar near the runway, which violated the rules of engagement.

"The duty officer called my attention to those words, 'No reaction,' " Lavelle said. "I called my D.O. and asked him to call the wing commander and tell him we could not report 'No reaction.' As far as I was concerned, there was no question the system and the radar were activated against us, and I felt we were making a mistake in reporting, 'No reaction.'

"Of course, this is the report that somehow or the other got blown up into all my trouble."

It's still unclear how, but Lavelle's message was garbled somewhere in the chain of command between Lavelle and a 23-year-old staff sergeant in Thailand who prepared the reports.

That sergeant wrote to his senator, Harold Hughes of Iowa, who described the letter on All Things Considered in 1972.

"And in this letter he started out by saying, 'Dear Senator Hughes, I and other members of winged intelligence have been falsifying classified reports for missions in to North Vietnam. That is, we've been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions and such anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile firings whether they have or not.' And the sergeant went on to tell that he'd been instructed to falsify reports."

Later, Lavelle did not dispute false reports existed, but he said they were the result of miscommunication.

"I'm sure that late that night, with the adrenaline charged as it was, in the command post, it never entered my head that somebody would make their interpretation of my words, and there would be false reports turned in. There is no question of false reports. I saw them later on. I know there were. But anybody who knows anything about Air Force operations knows the four-star commanding general there never sees the [after-action] reports. Those are punch cards that go from airman to airman. I never saw them."

A Broken Man

After the letter, the Air Force ordered an internal investigation into Lavelle's bombings. In March 1972, Lavelle was ordered home.

"I was hanging around Washington trying to find out what my fate was going to be," Lavelle said. "Gen. Ryan told me that the secretary of defense had talked to Gen. Abrams, and Gen. Abrams had denied all knowledge of any authorized attacks or any false reports. And that Gen. Abrams would abide by any decision Gen. Ryan and the secretary made. I was pretty shocked."

His commanders were abandoning him.

Lavelle eventually met with Ryan and made his case that the radar in North Vietnam was different. It had been activated, and Ryan agreed with him on this point. But when it came to the false reports, Lavelle took responsibility, providing protection for those officers beneath him.

"So you have to go," Ryan told him.

Within a few months, the story exploded into a public spectacle. It was all over the newspapers. Lavelle's son, John Jr., still keeps the clippings in old manila folder.

"Ex-U.S. commander admits falsifying data," he reads. "Bombing violation concealed: General admits false data on raids in Northern Vietnam. Lavelle admits or ordered authorized bombings. Lavelle may have hurt peace talks."

Lavelle was hauled before House and Senate committees to testify. Publicly, the Nixon White House distanced itself from him, but in private, Nixon was furious.

"I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. I just don't want it done," Nixon said in a taped conversation on June 14, 1972. "Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing, or?"

But there was nothing to be done. All that was left was for the Senate to confirm his retirement. In an unprecedented step, however, the Senate declined to approve Lavelle's retirement at the rank of four stars. He was demoted to a two-star general.

"I can remember going to the house," his son remembers, "finally when it was obvious how this whole thing was going — that he was going to be accused of this whole thing and take full responsibility and full blame for it — for all of it — that he was physically and mentally broken by it. I can remember walking in and seeing him sitting in the chair — kind of slumped over — his hands cupped in his lap — and it scared me because I thought to myself, god, what has happened here?"

Four Stars

Seven years later, in 1979, John Lavelle died of a heart attack.

And the story would have ended there.

But several years ago, the case was resurrected by a lawyer named Pat Casey who stumbled upon it while researching a book. The Obama administration agreed to reconsider Lavelle's demotion. The Nixon White House tapes, newly released, seemed to suggest Lavelle was acting on orders. The Obama White House asked the Senate to posthumously restore Lavelle's four stars.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, asked for an independent investigation. Neither senator agreed to speak with NPR about the case but in a statement issued in 2010, the committee cited "inconsistencies" in the historical record.

Part of those inconsistencies may have had to do with a letter the committee received from Charlie Stevenson, who had worked for Sen. Hughes in 1972.

"Nixon may have wanted it. He may have said it to Henry Kissinger and Ellsworth Bunker who were not in the military chain of command. But he never signed a written order to change the rules," Stevenson wrote.

"[Lavelle] had noble motives," he wrote. "He wanted to protect the lives of his pilots and thought they were endangered by the existing rules of engagement. So he thought he had a good reason to take winks and nods from higher authorities as some kind of proof that he could bend the rules."

For the Lavelle family, two years has been a long wait for the results of the independent investigation. And time is running out: Lavelle's widow, Mary Jo, is 93.

"She's hanging in there," Lavelle's daughter, Geraldine, says. "She's doing a good job. And I do think at this point that it has actually become more important to the kids than it is to mom."

The family takes small solace in Lavelle's gravestone, which displays four stars at Arlington National Cemetery.

"That was my mother's doing," Geraldine says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Celeste Headlee.

For the past 35 years, the audio you're about to hear has been sitting on reels of magnetic tape inside a warehouse at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GENERAL JOHN D. LAVELLE: I'm sorry to say, I've done nothing to prepare for this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, there's nothing to be prepared for, really, especially starting out.

HEADLEE: This audio is a matter of public record, but it's only recently been made available to NPR and has never been broadcast before. And it's why we're now able to bring you the story of a man being interviewed, what happened to him and why, four decades since he was brought into disrepute by the United States Air force. His case remains unresolved. The name of the man being interviewed is General John Lavelle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: My father, Irish Catholic.

HEADLEE: John Lavelle was a general in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. There were just five men in the chain of command between him and President Nixon. And this is his oral history. It was recorded by an Air Force officer in 1978, a year before Lavelle died a broken man. Six years earlier, he was abruptly removed from his command and demoted.

For the past several months, Guy Raz, the regular host of this program, has been interviewing people who knew John Lavelle and are still seeking to clear his name. Guy picks up the story from here.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

John Lavelle was born in Cleveland in 1916. In his oral history, he remembered being a pretty regular kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did you ever get in much trouble when you were a kid?

LAVELLE: Same as everybody else. Never arrested, if that's what you mean. Well, that's not true either. Never booked. Got arrested for swimming in Lake Erie in the nude one day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible)

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: His dad was a local fire chief, and he insisted Lavelle go to college. He worked odd jobs after graduation until one day, a friend said he was heading off to take the exam to be a flight cadet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: And I said, why, and he said, well, don't you realize how much airline pilots are making? Take the exam, spend a year as a cadet and one year as a flying officer, get out and you'll be hired immediately by the airlines. So I went with him.

RAZ: That was a few years before the Second World War, and around the same time, John Lavelle had his first date with the woman who would become his wife, Mary Jo. She is now 93. And we interviewed her a few weeks ago at her home in Virginia. Here are her recollections of their first date interspersed with John Lavelle's from his 1978 interview.

And how did that date go?

MARY JO LAVELLE: Oh, fair. Jack was not a dancer in any form. And so...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Where did you first meet your wife-to-be?

LAVELLE: In a parish CYO.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Mm-hmm.

LAVELLE: One of the priests there...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: A couple of young priests in our parish...

LAVELLE: They had played golf together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: The deal was Father Murphy offered me was play 18 holes...

LAVELLE: It was a bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: But if I were to win...

LAVELLE: If Jack won...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: ...he would pay for dinner and a show downtown for me and a date.

LAVELLE: Any girl that he chose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: And if he beat me, I had to join a CYO club and take this gal to the CYO dance that he had lined up for me.

LAVELLE: To be his date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: I lost.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (LAUGHTER)

So you only knew each other...

LAVELLE: That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, that I lost in a golf game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (LAUGHTER)

RAZ: By 1971, when Lavelles had been married 31 years, John Lavelle reached the pinnacle of his career, four stars on his shoulder, the highest rank he could achieve. In August of that year, Lavelle arrived at Vietnam as commander of the Seventh Air Force. His pilots were flying reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam.

The rules of engagement were clear: U.S. aircraft could not fire at targets in the north unless they were either being tracked by enemy radar or if they were fired on first. But by that point, the North Vietnamese had acquired a new type of sophisticated radar, one that could evade detection and take a plane out of the sky with almost no warning. For several months, Lavelle was losing pilots over the north. And as he recalled in his oral testimony, it was eating him up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: One morning, about 2 o'clock in the morning, I was going through paperwork. Included in the paperwork were some of the letters the chaplain wrote and the commander signed back to widows or wives of people missing in action. At 2 o'clock in the morning, I had one that I was signing to a wife of a pilot that had flown for me in the 50th Fighter Wing in Europe.

I almost couldn't sign it. Because I could say to myself, you know, the letter is a form letter, and it's a fake. If we would just go in there aggressively and do the job we had to do instead of the phony rules we were playing with, there was no need for that guy to lose his life. And I resolved then that they weren't going in there without a chance. That's when I said that you never go over North Vietnam that that system isn't activated against you.

RAZ: Lavelle promised himself that he'd do everything he could to prevent the loss of another fighter pilot. He wanted authorization to strike those sophisticated radar and missile sites in the north before their tracking systems were detected, because by that point, as he insisted, it would have been too late for a pilot to avoid being hit. So he sent a request up the chain of command to the then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: Secretary Laird told me that he agreed, but the climate was just not right in Washington for any changes.

RAZ: Now, remember, this was 1971. The war by that point was deeply unpopular. Already, more than 54,000 U.S. casualties. There was little public appetite for any further escalation. So Secretary of Defense Laird told Lavelle...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: He told me that I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not come to Washington and ask him, under the political climate, to come out with an interpretation, and he would back me up.

RAZ: But what Lavelle didn't know was that changes to the rules of engagement were also being discussed at the highest levels of government. February 3, 1972 in the Oval Office. In this secret White House recording, Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, can be heard explaining to President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, why the Air Force needed more leeway to bomb those targets in North Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLSWORTH BUNKER: Now the authority is for - to bomb them when they fire at the aircraft.

RAZ: Nixon seems sympathetic. He also doesn't want to lose any more U.S. pilots. But he was nervous that any escalation might look bad ahead of his upcoming trip to China. So Nixon agreed to allow a looser interpretation of the rules of engagement, but to do it off the books.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I want you to tell Abrams when you get back...

RAZ: Nixon tells Ellsworth Bunker to relay the following message to General Creighton Abrams, the top commander in Vietnam. Nixon says: From now on until we get back from China...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: Do it, but don't say anything.

RAZ: ...do it, but don't say anything. But by that point, General John Lavelle had already been doing it for 10 days. It started with a mission that targeted a runway in North Vietnam to prevent an enemy bomber from landing. Here's how Lavelle recalled that incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: The mission was successful. And the North Vietnamese called off the plan and actually turned the airplane around. In subsequent message traffic, JCS actually commended us for the mission.

RAZ: JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But there was a problem. When the after-action report was issued, the words no reaction were written at the bottom. That suggested that North Vietnamese radar was never detected, a violation of the rules of engagement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: I called my DO and asked him to call the wing commander and tell him that we could not report no reaction. As far as I was concerned, there was no question that the system and the radar were activated against us, and I felt that we were making a mistake in reporting no reaction. Of course, this is the report that somehow or the other got blown up into all my trouble.

RAZ: Somewhere along the chain of command, a 23-year-old staff sergeant who was in charge of filling in after-action reports was asked to make it clear that U.S. aircraft were targeted. That sergeant believed he was being asked to falsify that record. So he wrote to his senator, Harold Hughes of Iowa. In 1972, Hughes appeared on this program where he recounted the contents of the letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SENATOR HAROLD HUGHES: In this letter, he started out by saying: Dear Senator Hughes, I and other members of winged intelligence have been falsifying classified reports for missions in to North Vietnam. That is, we've been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions and such anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile firings whether they have or not. And the sergeant went on to tell that he'd been instructed to falsify reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And then what did you do?

RAZ: Senator Hughes ordered an internal investigation. And shortly after, the Air Force launched a full investigation. By March of 1972, Lavelle had no idea he was about to be made a public disgrace. That month, he met with a Thai general promising to carry out more bombings in the north, something the Thais were demanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: I said: Marshall Dawee, for every crew that gets one of those 130-millimeter guns, I'm sending him to Bangkok. And you, Dawee, you're going to put on the best (bleep) party Bangkok ever put on for each one of those troops. He said: It's a deal. At a later date, we received a wire saying that Prime Minister Kittikachorn wanted personally to throw the party and that he, Kittikachorn, was going to throw one of the biggest parties Thailand had ever seen. I also got a wire from Ryan the same day, saying: Come home. You're fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That wire came from General John Dale Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAVELLE: I went to the wrong party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: By early April, Lavelle was forced to retire. Officially, the Air Force said for personal and health reasons. The real story was leaked to the New York Times, and soon, it was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country. Jack Lavelle's son John Junior showed us some of those old clippings he keeps in a manila folder.

JOHN LAVELLE JUNIOR: Well, here's one of them: Ex-U.S. Commander Admits Falsifying Data. Bombing Violation Concealed: General Admits False Data on Raids in North Vietnam. Lavelle May Have Hurt Peace Talks.

RAZ: Lavelle was soon hauled before House and Senate committees to testify. Here's how it was covered on this program in 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: This month, Lavelle admitted to the House Armed Services Committee that he had ordered at least 147 unauthorized bombing raids against targets in North Vietnam. After his testimony, reporters surrounded Lavelle, but most of their questions were not answered.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You seem to know something about...

RAZ: Now, publicly, the Nixon White House distanced itself from Lavelle. But in private, Nixon was furious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: Come back to Lavelle. I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. I just don't want it done.

RAZ: I don't want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. He goes on to say: You're making the guy a goat now. It's just not right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: ...making the guy a goat now. It's just not right.

RAZ: Later on this tape, from June 14, 1972, Nixon asks if there is anything he could do to help Lavelle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: Come back to Lavelle now. I just - can't somebody - can we do anything now to stop this damn thing or...

RAZ: But there was nothing to be done. All that was left was for the U.S. Senate to confirm Lavelle's retirement. But in an unprecedented step, the Senate declined to approve Lavelle's retirement at the rank of four stars. They concluded that he knowingly falsified reports, so Lavelle was demoted to a two-star general. And after more than three decades in the Air Force, he was left a broken man. Again, here's Lavelle's oldest son John Junior.

JUNIOR: And I can remember going to the house finally when it was obvious that this - how this whole thing was going - that he was going to be accused of this whole thing and take full responsibility and full blame for it, for all of it, that he was physically and mentally broken by it. I can remember walking in and seeing him sitting on the chair and kind of slumped over and his hands cupped in his lap. And it scared me because I thought to myself: God, what has happened here?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Seven years later, in 1979, General Jack Lavelle died of a heart attack. He was just 63.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What other areas would you like to discuss?

LAVELLE: None. I think we've overdone the Lavelle interview, anyhow, and I think you ought to quit. How about cutting off the recorder?

RAZ: And the story would have ended there. But a few years ago, the case was resurrected by a lawyer named Pat Casey, who stumbled upon it while researching a book on another topic. And then in 2010, the Obama administration agreed to reconsider Lavelle's demotion.

PAT CASEY: Well, the nomination did not get to a vote.

RAZ: That's Pat Casey, the lawyer who revived the Lavelle case. He now represents the Lavelle family.

CASEY: The Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the secretary of Defense and asked that certain questions be answered.

RAZ: The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin, asked for an independent commission to look into the case. Neither senator agreed to speak with us about it, but in a statement issued in 2010, the committee cited inconsistencies in the historical record. Part of those inconsistencies may have had to do with a letter the committee received by a man named Charlie Stevenson. He warned against reinstating Lavelle's rank. Back in 1972, Stevenson worked for Senator Harold Hughes, the senator who launched the first investigation into General Lavelle's conduct. And to this day, Charlie Stevenson disputes John Lavelle's account.

CHARLIE STEVENSON: So Nixon may have wanted it. He may have said it to Henry Kissinger and Ellsworth Bunker, who were not in the military chain of command, but he never signed a written order to change the rules. And there were eight messages reinforcing the rules during the period of the unauthorized strikes.

RAZ: Do you believe that Jack Lavelle was aware that what he was doing was unauthorized and...

STEVENSON: He had noble motives. He wanted to protect the lives of his pilots and thought that they were endangered by the existing rules of engagement. So he thought he had a good reason to take winks and nods from higher authorities as some kind of proof that he could bend the rules.

RAZ: The Lavelle family and its lawyer Pat Casey are still in the dark as to why the independent investigation ordered by the Senate Armed Services Committee has now gone on for two years. Lavelle's daughter Geri(ph) told us the family's getting anxious. How important is time, is getting this done quickly?

GERI LAVELLE: Well, we keep saying it's important because of Mom's age. But she's hanging in there. She's doing a good job.

(LAUGHTER)

LAVELLE: And I do think at this point that it has actually become more important to the kids than it has - than it is to Mom.

RAZ: Where is he buried?

LAVELLE: Arlington.

RAZ: And what does his gravestone give his rank as?

(LAUGHTER)

LAVELLE: It's got four stars on it.

RAZ: His gravestone has four stars on it.

LAVELLE: Mm-hmm. That's my mother's doing. My mother called. We were given the information on who Arlington recommended to do gravestones, et cetera, and my mom called and ordered the gravestone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Mary Jo Lavelle insisted on those four stars. And no one has ever protested or perhaps never noticed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: That report was by Guy Raz, the regular host of this program. He'll be back next weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.