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Medal of Honor recipient buried in California dog park

Marker of Medal of Honor recipient buried in dog park.
Marker of Medal of Honor recipient buried in dog park.
Steve Schleder, used with permission

It almost sounds like something that would happen under Barack Obama's Veterans Administration. On Wednesday, Steve Schleder told Examiner.com that Army Private James Sumner, a veteran who received the Medal of Honor for gallantry in a cavalry charge in 1869, is currently buried in what is now a dog park in the city of Ventura, California.

Sumner, Schleder said, was one of 21 soldiers who received the Medal on Feb. 14, 1870. Sumner, along with other soldiers of Company G, 1st US Cavalry, fought Cochise and his Apaches in a box canyon after the Indians kidnapped a white settler child. Two soldiers were killed in the battle Schleder said was the inspiration for the John Wayne movie "Fort Apache." Sumner survived the battle and lived in the area for about 20 - 30 years. He died of a lung disease in 1912, Schleder added.

The story of Sumner's grave -- and the graves of thousands of others buried at the park -- is extremely important to Schleder, who received the Bronze Good Citizenship Award from the General George S. Patton Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution at Sumner's graveside in 2004. Among those present at that ceremony was Col. Lewis Millett, a veteran of three wars who received the Medal of Honor for his service in Korea.

Sumner's grave was not always a place where dogs could do their business, Schleder said. Initially started in 1862, it was run by the local Catholic Church, but the church ceded control of it to the city. It was abandoned in 1944 after it was declared full. In 1963, the city decided to make the cemetery a scenic park. It was then that desecration of the graves began, Schleder said.

A year later, all the tombstones, markers and above-ground crypts were removed. The bodies -- including Sumner's -- remained. By the end of 1965, the site became a scenic park. Families who wished were allowed to get a bronze plaque to mark the site of their ancestor's grave. Unfortunately, Schleder said, the city only allowed funding for 10 markers per year but has since stopped allocating funds.

In 2010, Marine Sgt. Craig "Gunny" Donor tried to get Sumner's remains moved to Bakersfield National Cemetery, but the city blocked the move. Fox News reported at the time that park commissioners "told Donor they're committed to a long-delayed effort to commemorate the area pioneers and military dead in the park."

"We are treating him pretty darn well, except for the poop," parks and recreation commissioner Sharon Troll said at the time. The offensive comment sparked a great deal of anger, Schleder said.

Donor didn't believe the commissioners. Neither does Schleder, who, for ten years, has fought to get the cemetery returned to its original state.

His site, Restore St. Mary's Cemetery, details decades of horror stories involving the cemetery and the fate of the thousands of tombstones there, and is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding the cemetery. At one point, he said, some tombstones were thrown off a 100-foot cliff, and a rumor was floated that the city ground them into dust.

Even a memorial marker placed by the Grand Army of the Republic listing all the veterans buried there was used to repair a river bank in 1969. At least one veteran, a member of the native California Cavalry, is currently buried under a parking lot, he said. Worse yet, Schleder said, city officials have advised other communities wishing to desecrate pioneer cemeteries.

Schleder, however, isn't ready to give up the fight. Realizing the only solution is a court battle, Schleder says he is putting together a non-profit organization and building a war chest to fight the city. He has also started a Facebook group to keep people informed of his progress.

"I've tried everything," he told Examiner. "But nothing works."