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NY cemetery has one veteran too many — and a big mystery

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — Willie Hayes was a Vietnam veteran who proudly served his country, won several medals and earned himself a plot at a veterans’ cemetery upon his death two weeks ago.
    But there was one problem: As far as the U.S. government was concerned, it buried Willie Hayes nearly four years ago.
    An apparently homeless man who went by the name Willie Hayes and had the same Social Security number, military record and date of birth was laid to rest at the cemetery in 2003.
    The family of the recently deceased Hayes was stunned to find out about the apparent impostor, and cemetery officials are asking some perplexing questions, among them: Did the man in the grave steal Willie Hayes’ identity? Was it a clerical error? Was his name even Willie Hayes?
    ‘‘If he didn’t serve in the Army, he shouldn’t be there. It’s not fair to the veterans. He stole my brother’s identity,’’ said Hayes’ brother, Sylvester.
    This much is certain: The Willie Hayes who died two weeks ago at 59 served in the Army in Vietnam, earned several medals and worked at a printing business. His family provided cemetery officials with overwhelming documentation of his military service and identity that show he is the rightful owner of a plot at Calverton National Cemetery.
    But virtually nothing is known about the other Willie Hayes.
    He was buried on Christmas Eve 2003 in the Long Island cemetery, two months after dying in a Bronx nursing home. No one came forward to claim his body, and the nursing home staff believed he was homeless. A spokesman for the center did not return a call for comment.
    There appear to be no relatives to interview and precious few clues about his past. If it is determined that the man was an impostor, his body will probably have to be exhumed and put in a pauper’s grave in New York City.
    ‘‘I’ve got 200,000 people buried here, but I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ Calverton director Michael Picerno said. ‘‘Ninety-nine percent of the time, the family has all the information, all the documentation, so these things never happen.’’
    Officials are exploring several scenarios in trying to solve the mystery.
    One is identity theft — the man who died in 2003 could have simply stolen Willie Hayes’ personal information at some point and went to his grave as an impostor.
    Another is that the man in the grave really was named Willie Hayes — and perhaps even a veteran — but his Social Security number and personal information somehow got mixed up with those of the other Willie Hayes.
    No one knows what happened in the weeks after his death in 2003. But his file ended up including the other Willie Hayes’ personal information and honorable discharge certificate, which earned him a plot in section 24, site 1465 of the veterans’ cemetery.
    He received a dignified ceremony befitting a Vietnam veteran — only no one was there to accept the American flag that draped his casket.
    That stands in stark contrast to the large contingent of relatives who mourned the other Willie Hayes recently, including his 85-year-old mother, Ann, a brother and sister and many others. Hayes was a kidney dialysis patient and apparently died of a hemorrhage.
    While the sleuthing continues, the white granite tombstone for the man who died in 2003 has already been removed and replaced with a green marker; the gravesite for the man who died in September is awaiting a tombstone. The ‘‘real’’ Hayes was buried Oct. 5 in an altogether different part of the cemetery.
    Picerno said officials have ruled out the possibility of exhuming the 2003 Willie Hayes in hopes of lifting a fingerprint to establish his identity. Picerno said such tests would probably not yield any results because he died so long ago.
    Stories abound about people pretending to be veterans, and veterans burnishing their meager accomplishments in uniform with tales of heroism.
    But American Legion spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said she has never heard of a case like the one involving the two men named Willie Hayes.
    ‘‘This is a new one,’’ Joyce said. ‘‘I think it was a good step by Calverton to allow the burial of the second Mr. Hayes.’’
    She said if it can be determined that the Hayes buried in 2003 was not a veteran, his remains should be removed: ‘‘That cemetery space is earned by our veterans. It is hallowed ground.’’
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Ula Ilnytzky in New York contributed to this story.

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