RICHMOND, Va. — Donna Gugger's heart was heavy as she sifted through the scattered debris and devastation left by Superstorm Sandy along the Jersey Shore. Pieces of broken furniture. Shards of metal. Chairs ripped off patios. Blue jeans tossed out of bureaus.
But there was something different about that swath of gray cloth with shiny brass buttons. She stopped to take a second look, leaning down to tug on an edge of the fabric that peeked out from under the sand. At first glance, she thought it was an elaborate Halloween costume — a jacket that reminded her of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.
It was no costume. Gugger had stumbled across an 80-year-old tunic owned by a 1933 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a World War II hero described in his West Point yearbook as a soldier with a "heart like a stormy sea."
The jacket's journey is as mysterious as its history. No one knows how it ended up on the Jersey Shore, hundreds of miles north of the late warrior Chester B. deGavre's home on Virginia's Eastern Shore. His 98-year-old widow, Tita deGavre, didn't even know it existed.
But now that it has been found, the jacket is more than just a recovered forgotten relic.
For deGavre, it is another part of her late husband to cherish. She plans to hang it on the wall along with some of his other military garb and awards at the Deep Creek Plantation, a sprawling Virginia landscape along the shore where she also found her husband's missing West Point ring years ago.
"I found it most impossible to believe," deGavre said after Gugger drove five hours earlier this week to deliver the ornate jacket. "Where could it have been all this time?"
Chester deGavre's parents used to live in Red Bank, less than 10 miles southwest of where the jacket was found. But that was years ago and the house has been sold many times over.
"Somebody must have had (the jacket) under great care, and whether their house blew away with Sandy, I don't know," said deGavre, who met her husband while he was overseas in her native England. They married in 1948.
"It's all a big mystery, but I'm happy about it."
To Gugger, the jacket is nothing less than a symbol of resurrection and renewal in a landscape scarred by sorrow and loss.
The 48-year-old pharmaceutical consultant from Holland, Pa., found the military clothing while she and other members of the Sandy Hook Bay Catamaran Club helped clean up damage from Sandy, which struck in late October.
"I saw blue jeans, I had seen jackets, chairs, backpacks — all kinds of things," she said. "And to go from a point of looking at devastation and the sadness that was associated with that, to find that something so good could potentially come out of the findings in all of that debris, I was just overjoyed."
Gugger took the jacket home, shook out the sand, and washed it off. It was in extraordinary condition, and upon closer examination, she noticed the words "West Point" and "issued to deGavre" on the inside. Determined to get the jacket back to its rightful owner, she contacted West Point's Association of Graduates, which cleaned and preserved it and tracked down deGavre's family.
The heavy coat, studded with brass buttons down the front and sleeves, hasn't changed much since it was first adopted at the academy around 1816, said retired Army Col. Chris Needels, a 1965 graduate of West Point and family friend of the deGavres. With its tails, intricate stitching, and diagonal gold braids on the shoulders, the jacket is still worn by cadets for formal occasions and in parades.
Before his death in 1993 at age 85, Chester deGavre was a Retired Army brigadier general, a pioneering paratrooper and chief of staff for the 1944 airborne invasion of southern France. He was one of the first Army officers to take parachute training at the start of World War II, joining the Airborne Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Newark, N.J., native improved techniques and standardized equipment for the airborne forces as a parachute-training officer and chief of test and development. His decorations included a Silver Star from the Korean War and the Legion of Merit with three oak-leaf clusters.
"This was a soldier, this was a war hero, somebody who risked his life for our country, and I was determined to get it back to the family," Gugger said of the jacket.
"It's a miracle because it's still a mystery how it made it to that beach and for me to have even had the opportunity to pick it up. It's not really about the jacket, it's about the journey."