LCpl. Gregory Rund

(reprinted from the Denver Post, December 21, 2004)
Cemetery crew prepares Marine’s final resting place
“It’s an honor to do this”

John Nicolai dropped two shovels and two rakes onto the burned grass at Section S of Fort Logan National Cemetery and prepared to dig grave No. 5992-B.

Monday’s burial had been on the schedule for a few days, so the gravedigger already knew he would be cutting the earth for Lance Cpl. Greg Rund.

Nicolai never met the 21-year-old Marine, recognizing him only as the young man from Columbine High School who was ambushed and died this month on his second tour of duty in Iraq.

“But it’s an honor to do this for him,” Nicolai said, pushing his sunglasses farther up his nose. “I want to make him proud.”

When Nicolai’s co-workers arrived a few minutes later, they began measuring the 3-foot-by-8-foot plot of land, marking it with precise chops of their shovel blades.

They measured from the marble headstone belonging to Staff Sgt. Theodore Holder II, a Marine who was killed Nov. 11 in Iraq – exactly one month before Rund’s death.

Holder’s father, Sam, stopped by Monday as a backhoe peeled back the first layer of grass and dirt.

Holder bit his lip.

“I was hoping (Rund) would be buried there,” Holder said, standing over the two graves.

Up on the hillside a few hundred yards away, men and women covered their hearts or saluted as Marines in crisp, blue uniforms and virgin-white gloves pulled Rund’s casket from a black hearse.

Rund’s mother, Jane, put her head on the shoulder of her husband, Mark, as they clutched a blue box with gold trim that carried their son’s Purple Heart award.

Rund’s girlfriend bowed her head as a preacher told the crowd of several hundred that they should be “grateful … for the life of Gregory Rund.”

And then it was over. The families went to their black limousine, friends back to their cars.

The mauve van showed up at Section S once the cars cleared.

A different honor guard – six men in green work clothes and brown gloves – took Rund’s casket, put it in a concrete coffin and lowered it 7 feet into the ground.

Larry Ballard watched as dirt was poured onto the concrete, then flattened.

Ballard – like most of the 19 men who work on Fort Logan’s grounds – is a veteran. He found the grave of his old Army captain several years ago while mowing the grass.

The job of a gravedigger, Ballard said, is built on pride. After all, he will be here someday.

“I was depressed and had to go into therapy (after Vietnam),” Ballard said. “Now, in a way, this is like my therapy. It’s something that’s very important to me.”

Andrew Alonzo’s job arguably is the most difficult. He set Rund’s 240-pound marble headstone, putting it perfectly in line with its neighbors.

He unwound yellow wire and measured from a nearby stone, making sure Rund’s marker was upright, standing exactly in the middle of the new grave.

Alonzo – an Army reservist who returned from Iraq this spring – is the only one allowed to set stones for soldiers killed in action.

He has done eight since military operations in Iraq began last year.

“I want to make this complete, for (Rund) and for the family,” Alonzo, 42, said. “They’ll be visiting this for years and years, and I want to make it look nice.”

Four hours after the first scoop of dirt was taken, after Sam Holder expressed appreciation that his son forever would be next to another hero, only Alonzo remained.

He cut sod and put it at the base of Rund’s headstone, stepping back to look at his work before cutting another piece of grass.

He got on his hands and knees and wiped dirt from the white stone.

He poured water over it and ran sandpaper over the tiny flecks of unpolished marble.