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Ronald McNeil, Edie Jeter’s unclePhoto courtesy of Edith Jeter
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Ronald McNeil is buried in Henri-Chapelle cemetery in Belgium. His grave is tended by a local boy.Photo courtesy of Edith Jeter
Edith Jeter had always wondered about the uncle she never met.
"There were originally seven brothers. My dad and two of his brothers served in the Army during World War II," Jeter explains. "My uncle Ronald, a paratrooper with the 508th PIR, was wounded during the Normandy Invasion and was in Belgium, where my father was also serving. They planned to meet during Christmas, but the Battle of the Bulge began December 16, 1944. On December 27, my uncle, who was 30, was killed."
Jeter, known as Edie, was the archivist for the International Mission Board (IMB) in Richmond when the opportunity arose to conduct a records assessment at IMB's Paris office in 2008. While in Europe, the Chesterfield resident visited the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium, where Ronald McNeil is buried.
Seeing 7,992 graves at one time was overwhelming.
"The cemetery superintendent took a bucket filled with sand from Normandy Beach and used a sponge to apply sand to Ronald's headstone, highlighting his name so it would show up on a photo," Jeter recalls. "Then he said, ‘I want to say thank you on behalf of our country and the people of Belgium. They will never forget your uncle's service.' "
Following that afternoon's flag service and taps, Jeter visited Remember Museum 39-45, started by Marcel Schmetz, who was a child when Germany invaded Belgium in 1940. American soldiers camped on the Schmetz farm; they were called to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where many were killed. The family collected the soldiers' belongings and stored them in their barn. Near the 50th anniversary of June 6, 1944's D-Day invasion, Schmetz opened his museum, which honors the Americans and British who liberated the region in September 1944, using the memorabilia left behind.
"It's absolutely incredible," Jeter says. She became friends with Marcel, and his wife, Mathilde, and another couple took her around all of the sites in a small city called Vielsalm where Ronald McNeil's unit spent time. Jeter shared this news with her mother, who died a few weeks after Jeter's return.
An even more amazing thing happened then, she recounts. "The day following her death, a letter came saying a boy named Nathan Ernst was adopting Ronald's grave." Since he was 8, his grandmother planned to help him, and she passed on the story of the soldiers' sacrifice.
On July 4, 2009, Jeter learned that Nathan's father, Jean-Luc, had died in a car accident at the age of 38. Jeter and her son, Luke, had already been preparing to return to Belgium for the 65th reunion of the liberation of Henri-Chapelle. They visited some of the German, Canadian, British, French and American cemeteries along the way.
"The German cemeteries were totally opposite of the American cemeteries, which had white marble crosses or Stars of David, one soldier to a plot. The German markers are dark gray stone. Some markers had six names on them, and there were close to 20,000 markers at one cemetery."
Once in Henri-Chapelle, Jeter and her son met Nathan's family, attended several family functions and visited Jean-Luc's grave. The Jeters even rode in a military jeep in the commemorative parade, which included a stop at the Henri-Chapelle cemetery, where a general presented 65 certificates to kindergartners for the graves they were adopting. Nathan had received his certificate a year earlier. Jeter says she never felt more patriotic than she did in Belgium.
"The men who served are not being forgotten," Jeter says. "I think Americans need to help our children remember the sacrifices, not just of WWII, but Korea, Vietnam and the war on terror. We've got men and women putting their lives on the line every day. Luke served in the Navy in the Persian Gulf helping enforce the embargo against Iran. The USS Cole was there, and we know what happened to it. I'm a military mother and understand that no one is truly safe. We ought to be thanking them every time we see them."
Jeter wants to spread the word about collecting military stories. She is searching the records of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, where she has worked as an archivist since February 2012.
"The Diocese published a book following the war, but it's not complete. We need all stories, not just those killed in action. We were war-weary after Korea and Vietnam," she continues, "and didn't welcome our soldiers home in an honorable manner. My son has a framed certificate signed by Harry Truman in appreciation for Ronald's service. One of the American flags that flew over Henri-Chapelle cemetery hangs in his office."
Jeter has sent pictures of her uncle and her father, Fred, to the Virginia War Memorial, where a website is maintained to memorialize soldiers' lives. The Library of Virginia also has a website where information can be added.
"I still don't know the whole story," Jeter adds quietly. "My dad never spoke about his war or about losing Ronald, or how it affected his youngest brother. They kept those stories internally — what agony. He would have loved knowing how the people in Belgium are preserving the memories. I have a photo of Nathan [who's now 12] on my desk. I know he will take care of Ronald's grave and pass that on to his children."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.