Many have been spending time during the pandemic cleaning out their homes, sorting through mementos and long-forgotten boxes.
But one rediscovered item— the uniform of a highly decorated veteran— led a Virginia woman to enlist a community of strangers to solve a decades-old mystery.
News4's Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey has been covering this side of the state since joining NBC4 in 1992. She's joined by reporter Drew Wilder.
The military uniform was first found back in 1986, in a house on Green Street in Alexandria, Virginia, owned by Ann Cameron Siegal’s mother.
When her mother passed away, Siegal began cleaning out the attic. What she found would eventually change a family and unite the community.
“We went up there,” Siegal recalled. “This uniform was hanging on a peg. It wasn’t in a trunk, it wasn’t in a box. It was just hanging up in the attic.”
The mysterious uniform would sit in storage for a few more decades — until the pandemic struck.
“COVID shut everything down and like everybody else, we started going through the house and saying, ‘let’s just clean out stuff.’”
And there it was again: the U.S. Army uniform, adorned with numerous insignia and decorations. Siegal knew the uniform hadn’t belonged to her mother.
“It was a highly decorated officer,” she said. “I wanted to find out who my mother bought the house from.”
But she hit a roadblock.
“Everything was closed. We couldn’t go back to land records, online didn’t go back that far, so I went to Nextdoor.com.”
Hundreds of comments, all from strangers, flooded in. The Alexandria community wanted to help.
Then, just the right person saw the post — military historian Patrick Jennings.
“I thought I could help,” Jennings said. “It was a fantastic mystery.”
The decades-long enigma would be cracked within 24 hours.
“We all put the pieces together, combining the real estate records and the military records and — and he posted, “I FOUND IT!” Siegal remembered.
“You could almost feel the hugs and high-fives,” she said.
The uniform belonged to Col. Royal Gervais, who served in World War I and World War II.
“In the Army, in the Army history program, we like to say that every soldier has a story and we’re lucky that Col. Gervais actually left us a resume in a way, without a name on it, in his uniform,” Jennings said.
Col. Gervais’ grandson, David, remembers the man in uniform.
“He was a good man. He really was,” David Gervais said. “For the time spent, all of those years spent in the military, through two wars, he was a good guy.”
Now, the uniform is back with the Gervais family, who plans to pass it down through generations.
“Because this is all part of our history,” David Gervais said.
Col. Royal Gervais now rests on a sloped hillside, surrounded by giant trees at Arlington National Cemetery.
Every soldier has a story, and this one managed to bring together a community.
Siegal sums up what it means to her in one word: connections.
“Connections both between generations. Connections in history and connections in a community when everybody is forced to be distant,” she said.
“I want people to see that you can come together, you can work together and find solutions,” Jennings said.
As for what Col. Gervais would think, his grandson says, “Oh, I think he’d be amazed.”