VENTURA, Calif. – The grave site for an 1860s Army hero awarded the Medal of Honor is now a popular Ventura dog park with poop soiling what veterans say should be sacred ground.
"Talk to any veteran, he will tell you it is a terrible thing. It's disrespectful," said retired Marine Sgt. Craig "Gunny" Donor, who served two tours in Vietnam and is bent on getting the soldier's remains moved.
Pvt. James Sumner, who was awarded the nation's highest military honor for gallant actions after a band of Apache Indians kidnapped a settler's child, died in 1912 and he was buried in what was then St. Mary's Cemetery.
Most of the flat grave markers have been hauled away, but a few dozen markers still pepper the 7-acre Cemetery Memorial Park that was home to about 3,000 permanent residents. Most were never relocated.
The lush, well-manicured hillside patch of green on Main Street just a few blocks east of downtown Ventura has pine, thickets of overgrown junipers and a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean and Ventura Pier.
"It's a beautiful memorial park, a different kind of park because living people come to have fun. I would think those buried here would like that," said Jessi Burt, a 24-year-old park neighbor walking her boxer Ally.
Others jogging with dogs in the park say pet owners are good about cleaning up after the animals.
"The people who use the park are the most reverent, in my opinion. Sometimes, people will come up and pick up my dog's poop before I have a chance," said Beverly Karbum, 58, who was walking her Australian shepherd Roxanne.
Army records show Sumner was a 28-year-old immigrant from London who led the 1869 chase after the kidnapped child into a remote canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. There was an ambush and a fierce firefight, but Sumner held off attackers until reinforcements arrived. Records don't indicate what happened to the child.
President Ulysses S. Grant awarded Sumner the Medal of Honor in 1870. Donor believes the medal is buried with him.
Sumner died in 1912 at age 72. He never married and there are no heirs, Donor said.
"I'm trying to get him moved to Bakersfield National Cemetery. He needs to be moved to a place of respect. Cemeteries are solemn places," said Donor.
But Ventura leaders have so far balked at moving Sumner.
"We are treating him pretty darn well, except for the poop," parks and recreation commissioner Sharon Troll told the Ventura County Star.
The commission voted July 21 to postpone for two months Donor's request to unearth Sumner.
Park commissioners have told Donor they're committed to a long-delayed effort to commemorate the area pioneers and military dead in the park.
But Donor, who lives in Fontana and is a state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club that honors fallen veterans, isn't convinced. He expects the fight to wind up in court.
"He has no family, no one else to stand up for him, except for his brothers and sister in arms," Donor said.