Beyond the neatly trimmed hedges encircling the 70-acres of the Southern Memorial Park Cemetery in North Miami, rows and rows of tombstones identify the loved ones who are buried there.
But one plot has no grave marker — just a square marble slab with no engraving.
Al Lopez, a cop turned private investigator, feels responsible for that plot.
“If I move out of the area or die, then no one will ever know who was buried there, ” Lopez said.
Robert Randall was 19 when he was killed on May 23, 1969 in the jungles of Vietnam. But without a grave marker, no one would know that a young soldier from North Miami was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze medal for this bravery. Had he lived just a few months longer, he might have heard the Beatles Abbey Road album or witnessed the historic landing on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. Those are the kinds of the things that Lopez thinks about when he’s reminded of his own good fortune.
“Bobby was such a nice guy,” Lopez said.” We went to Westview Junior High together and then we went to different high schools after that. I was a Cuban immigrant and I came to this country when I was 41/2 years old. I remember the remarks and names from the other kids at school about being Cuban. Bobby never participated and I never forgot that.”
Randall was two years older and died while Lopez was still in high school. Lopez said despite that tragedy, it didn’t deter him from trying to enlist. But he was 17 and needed his parent’s signature.
“My older brother had been drafted the year before and of course my parents said ‘no way.’”
By the time Lopez was eligible, the draft had become a lottery system so he opted to attend Miami Dade College instead and wait for his number to come up.
“I figured if I’m drafted, I’m drafted, but God had a different plan for me,” he said.
For years, Lopez visited Randall’s gravesite to place flowers and pay homage to the kid “who made the ultimate sacrifice.” He remembers a plaque with his friend’s date of birth and death, and recognition of the medals he was awarded posthumously.
“There was a Life magazine article about the guys who were killed in the Battle of Hamburger Hill,” he said. “Bobby’s picture was on one of those pages and so as life went on, I still had it on my mind about Bobby.”
About a year and half ago, Randall’s grave marker disappeared. As a private investigator, digging up old information comes naturally for Lopez. But in this case, he was reluctant to track down Randall’s mother, who he knew had moved away from the area.
“Family life goes on,” he said. “It’s an old wound and I’m very sensitive to reopening that wound. I don’t want to do that and hurt them and so I felt the burden was on me to do something.”
The first step was to report the missing grave maker to the cemetery officials, but Lopez soon discovered that without it, he couldn’t prove anyone was buried there, let alone that it belonged to his friend. The cemetery has been privately owned since it opened in 1940, so there were no public records to search through.
“Back in 1969, information was kept on cards and somehow Bobby’s card was lost,” he said. “I had to come out with a foreman so they could probe the site and verify that yes, there was a gravesite there,” Lopez said.
But just when all clues seemed to be drying up, Lopez read a story in the Miami Herald. It turns out that another man was on a quest to identify all the veterans buried in the cemetery and create a commemorative plaque for them.
For nearly three years, Bruce Lamberto had been going through the park, cataloging and researching the military lives of the vets from the information on their grave markers.
“I would look for grave makers that had war time dates and usually if the person in the grave was in their 20s or teens, most likely they were killed during a war,” Lamberto said. “I wrote their names down and looked it up on Internet.”
Lopez told Lamberto that he was going to miss a guy that was killed in action, because there is no marker for him.
“That’s when Bruce thought of checking up on who owned the plot. That was a very smart move on his part,” Lopez said.
It turned out that Randall’s mother had buried her son in her plot, but since she had a different last name there was no record of his burial.
“I thought about that,” Lamberto said. “What if there are other guys still out there we don’t know about? I decided to leave room on the plaque for any new names we may discover and need to add later.”
The Veterans Memorial Plaque will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the entrance column to Southern Memorial Park Cemetery, 15000 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami.
Since part of the cemetery is located in North Miami Beach, officials from the city will attend the dedication that will honor the deceased with an honor guard, a firing detail and a short ceremony.
There are 26 names — including Randall’s — on the plaque.
With Lamberto’s help, Lopez hopes they can get the U.S. government to issue a new official grave marker, but so far they are waiting for a response.
As the cooler breezes of autumn blow across the rows of graves, Lopez wonders out loud if today’s youth appreciate the sacrifices of the lives the deceased soldiers.
“When I was young, we learned about World War II. We saw the Vietnam War on TV and then there’s the forgotten war, the Korean War,” he mused. “It seems to me that not many young people these days could even tell you where Syria or Iraq is located on the map, let alone tell you the significance of why we fought there. I just hope that the sacrifices these young man have made are not forgotten.”
Veterans Day events
Veterans Day Golf Tournament to benefit Wounded Warrior Project: Charity golf tournament to benefit Wounded Warrior Project, presented by Anda, Inc. All golfer entry fees will be donated to the non-profit organization which provides many services; 8 a.m. Nov. 11; Davie Golf and Country Club, 8201 Nova Dr., Davie. $500 per team, $125 for individual. 954-797-4653, www.daviegolf.net/course/events/tournaments.
Veterans Day Concert: America’s Moms for Soldiers salutes U.S. troops past and present with a concert featuring director James McGonigal and the American Legion Symphonic Band and tenor James Perkowski. Also includes a musical tribute to all branches of the military; 4 p.m. Nov. 9; Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, 5555 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Free admission. Free-will donations accepted to send care packages to troops in Afghanistan. www.americasmomsforsoldiers.com.
North Miami Veterans Day Ceremony: Join the City of North Miami to honor all who have served honorably in the United States Armed Forces. Event includes posting of colors by local Veterans organizations, presentations by the North Miami Police Department Honor Guard and Rifle Team and musical entertainment; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Griffing Park, 12215 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami. Free. 305-895-9840, www.northmiamifl.gov/celebrate.
Pinecrest Veterans Day Ceremony: To celebrate the lives of brave military personnel, members of the Pinecrest Youth Advisory Council interview a panel of veterans while developing an oral history of their lives. In turn, members of the youth council assist guests and help serve lunch. Also includes special presentations by community leaders and the Pinecrest Police Honor Guard. A DJ provides music throughout the event and the Miamians Barbershop Chorus also performs; 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 11; Veterans Wayside Park, 11111 Pinecrest Pkwy., Pinecrest. For more information, and to RSVP, call 305-284-0900.
Surfside Veterans Day Ceremony: The event includes a presentation of colors, local Scout troops, guest speakers, and Mayor Daniel Dietch, who serves as Master of Ceremonies. Light refreshments will be served; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Veterans Park, 8791 Collins Ave., Surfside. 305-866-3635 or www.townofsurfsidefl.gov.
Veterans Day at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: Free admission is offered to the nation’s veterans and active duty military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve, through May 24, 2015. The program honors the men and women who have sacrificed their lives to protect the American way of life. Visitors must present their military identification at the Ticket Booth; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily except Tuesdays; Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 South Miami Ave., Miami. For more information, visit www.vizcaya.org or call 305-250-9133.
Wilton Manors Veterans Day Ceremony: Honors the members of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy; 11 a.m. Nov. 11; Hagen Park, 2020 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. Free. 954-390-2100, www.wiltonmanors.com.
Walk a Mile in their Boots — Walk-a-Thon to Support Our Troops: Join teams from all over South Florida in paying tribute to those who sacrifice so much for our freedom; 3 p.m. Nov. 9; Village Green Park, 400 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne. Teams of up to six can register for $50 before the event. Price increases day of event. Donations encouraged from those not walking. 305-202-2048, ipadsforsoldiers.org/milewalk-info.
A Call to Serve: Florida Jews and the U.S. Military: Film screening in honor of Veteran’s Day. Based on a 2010 exhibit, the documentary by Steve Waxman is a portrait of the courageous people who risked their lives for the dreams of the nation and covers immigration, patriotism, acculturation, citizenship, courage, obstacles, and leadership; 2 p.m. Nov. 9; Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Free with museum admission. 786-972-3175, www.jewishmuseum.com.
Veterans Day Event: Say “Thank you” to all the veterans by participating in the creation of patriotic crafts and writing thank you notes for veterans; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Miami Children’s Museum, 980 MacArthur Cswy., Downtown Miami. 305-373-5437, www.miamichildrensmuseum.org.
Veterans Day Mini-Camp: Keep the sea free of debris in this fun and educational marine science mini camp. Spend the day with a naturalist guide and learn all about marine debris, ocean gyres, how plastics affect sea life and how to help protect the oceans; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 11; Biscayne Nature Center, 6767 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne. $18 per person. Space is limited. Register at 305-361-6767, ext. 119 or email at maito:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veterans Day Ruck Run: Honors those local residents who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The run links those in the population who have no immediate connection to the military to those who do; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10; North Shore Park Beach, 79th Street and Collins Avenue, Miami Beach. $45 to $65 depending on registration date. 954-399-1619.
The Rib Ticklers Ball: The third annual Cutler Bay BBQ challenge includes a salute to veterans. Light the grills and smokers and show everyone that your BBQ is the best in town; 2 p.m. Nov. 8; Cutler Ridge Park and Pool, 10100 SW 200th St., Cutler Bay. 305-238-4166.
Free Lunch For Veterans: Texas Roadhouse in Miramar is offering a free lunch for veterans. Veterans and active members of the United States military enjoy a free lunch from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Nov. 11 at Texas Roadhouse Restaurant at 3241 SW 160th Ave. in Miramar. For more information, call 954-499-3391.