On her annual pilgrimage to Hawthorne, Tina Sutton returned to the memorial site which honors her son, Cpl. Aaron Ripperda, who died with six of his fellow soldiers who were conducting training at the Hawthorne Army Depot.
This trip is the second time that Sutton has visited Hawthorne. The last two Armed Forces Day’s, Sutton (this year accompanied by her daughter, Kendall), visits the memorial built to honor the seven U.S. Marines who were killed on March 18, 2013 while training on 60 mm rounds at the depot (human error would later be blamed for the incident).
As Sutton approached the memorial located on depot property, her strong composure is comforting to those in attendance.
She speaks not only of her son, Ripperda, but also of the other six Marines and their families. In her hands, she carries a black binder, which holds the stories of each Marine. Urged to share their stories, the families of Pfc., Joshua M. Martino of Clearfield, Pa.; Lance Cpl. David P. Fenn II of Polk City, Fla.; Lance Cpl. Roger W. Muchnick Jr. of Fairfield, Conn.; Lance Cpl. Joshua C. Taylor of Marietta, Ohio; Lance Cpl. Mason J. Vanderwork of Hickory, N.C.; Lance Cpl. William T. Wild IV of Ann Arundel, Md. and her own son, Ripperda of Madison, Ill. have compiled stories, biographies and photos of the men who were more than US Marines.
Sutton asked that the book be left at the site, so that others will know their stories and faces as they visit the memorial in years to come.
When Sutton began her first journey to Hawthorne, she realized that not only was it a healing experience for herself, but she found the town was also grieving with her. The outreach she received from locals helped her to begin the process of healing – in turn, meeting with the men and women who answered the call of help and cared for the deceased and wounded, made Sutton realize that she was not alone.
Within the binder Sutton carries are a collection on inspirational notes meant for one of the fallen Marines by his fiancée. These small pieces of paper carry 365-days’ worth of motivation and memories. Under a grey sky, Sutton reads from one, “I love it when you kiss me in the rain.” A note read to her lover at his memorial as the rain drizzles onto her words.
“A cloud hung over the town when I first came here,” Sutton told those in attendance. “It was hard, but coming here helps me. Other families want to come visit the memorial. It will happen, in time.”
Under the command of Captain Rob Mathias, three SOC firefighters were given the chance to meet Sutton for the first time, as they were first responders on the deadly night. The bond of the tragic event left no boundaries as each fireman hugged Sutton and gave and received words of encouragement to begin the healing process that may take a lifetime to complete.
“I did not realize that there were two fire departments,” she tells firefighters, Asst. Chief Ken Little, Curtis Espinosa and Justin Steele, who were on scene that catastrophic night.
At the memorial site, bouquets of fresh flowers were placed on top coins and mementos that have been left by those who honor and remember the seven Marines. Two US Flags were placed on each side of the concrete memorial, thirteen strips and fifty stars, under which these Marines valiantly fought.
Lt. Col. Gregory Gibbons asked for a moment of silence under the rainy sky as the crowd reflected upon the lives of these Marines, a grieving mother and a town that was turned upside down that night in March.
The seven Marines were with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. who were newly back from a four-month deployment to Kuwait, which had ended in January 2013. The company had been training at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. when the company’s mortar section began night training on 60 mm mortar rounds on the Hawthorne Army Depot facility.
A report of the command investigation noted that the troop’s death and injuries “occurred in the line of duty and [were] not the result of misconduct on the part of any of the victims.”
Regardless of the report detailing the accident, the mother of Ripperda said she will continue to come back to Hawthorne and hopes that other families will join her.
“It is part of my healing,” she said.