Volunteers work to restore forgotten marine’s gravesite

Chester. The effort is 14 years in the making and still going strong.

| 21 Nov 2023 | 11:15

In 2009, Joanne Bamond was attending the burial of a good friend when, during the ceremony, Alice, the deceased’s sister, began focusing her attention on an area of brush and weeds not far from the burial site.

“I asked what she was looking at, and eventually she showed me,” recalled Bamond. “It was a burial marker. She said once when she was here at the cemetery visiting her mom, she noticed it even though it was covered with weeds. It was in bad shape, overgrown and she had done her best to tend to it so it was visible. For a few years I joined her, and we put up little crosses and tried to clear the brush out of the immediate vicinity so at least the headstone remained visible. Then, for these past 10 years, it had just been me tending to the area around the headstone.”

At that time, Bamond said she contacted the Rectory for more information.

“I spoke to a woman and told her this is what we found, the information on the headstone and if they could please reach out to friends or family members to let them know he is being taken care of. I was told their records didn’t go back that far,” Bamond said. “There could be more people buried in those weeds. Who knows?”

Saint Columba Parish and Cemetery Secretary Rosemary Tuzio, when asked about the situation, says she was at St. Columba back in 2009 when Bamond would have contacted the Rectory and she has no recollection of being notified of the situation.

“I have never heard such a thing and I would be the person to handle something like that,” Tuzio said. “I don’t even know where in the cemetery you could be referring to. Please let these kind-hearted people know that we are happy to reimburse them, whatever the cost, and they are more than welcomed to contact me.”

The marker turned out to be for United States Marine Sgt. James R. Ruppert, born Feb. 11, 1951, and killed in action in the jungles of Vietnam on Aug. 21, 1971. Additional efforts to find relatives or friends of Ruppert have thus far fallen flat.

Bamond and her husband, Paul, belong to an organization called Orange County Strong. At one of the group’s meetings not too long ago, they mentioned what she had been doing for the past 14 years inside St. Columba’s Cemetery in Chester. They could hardly believe her. Before long, she had a team that included her husband, Ron and Maggie Nelson, U.S. Civil Affairs Colonel (Ret.) and American Legion Post Commander 1573 Harriman Christopher Holshek (himself, a war veteran), and a dog. Armed with weedwhackers and rakes, they followed her to the site.

“As they cleared the brush further and further from the headstone, we came across a fallen stone cross, it too, buried in these awful weeds,” Bamond said. “I recalled bumping into it before, of course because it was not visible until recently, thinking it was an old wall or something.”

It just so happened that on Saturday, Nov. 4, while Bamond and her crew of volunteers were about to put Sgt. Ruppert’s cross back in the ground, a local funeral parlor had just finished a burial nearby and had the ability to find Ruppert’s vault and proper placement for the cross.

Minutes later, before the cross went up, Ron Nelson noticed a bagpiper, who gladly came over and played, “God Bless America” and “The Marines Hymn.”

When asked if the disrepair Ruppert’s place of rest had fallen into was, in some small way, symbolic to how some Vietnam veterans were treated upon arriving home, Paul Bamond, a Vietnam veteran himself, didn’t hesitate to answer.

“You mean how we were spit on and called baby killers,” he said, fighting back tears. “Sure, it does.”