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Bracelet honoring fallen Parkersburg High School grad makes its way to family

Candy Cooley was presented with a Gold Star pin by Bernie Lyons in honor of her brother Ernest Sutphin who died in active duty in 2004. A man wore a bracelet to honor Sutphin from 2004 until the time he died in 2007. After help from Lyons and Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens, the bracelet was returned to Sutphin’s mother. (Photo Provided)

VIENNA — “The ones who love us never really leave us.”

The mother of a lost soldier recently found out a man had been wearing a bracelet in honor of her son, Pfc. Ernest Sutphin, who died in active duty in 2004.

Retired Master Sgt. Merrill Bonwell of Oklahoma donned the bracelet in Sutphin’s honor up until his passing in 2007, after which Marlene Bonwell, his wife, decided to return the bracelet to Sutphin’s family.

Not only did Bonwell wear the bracelet–his wife said he never took it off.

Marlene Bonwell didn’t know much about Sutphin, only that he was from Parkersburg and that he had graduated from Parkersburg High School in 2001.

After contacting the City of Parkersburg, she got in touch with Bernie Lyons, retired Marine and member of the Marine Corps Veterans Association Mid-Ohio Valley Platoon, who was able to find Sutphin’s mother through Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens.

“I contacted my friend Sheriff Steve Stephens who has lived here all his life and been in law enforcement for over 40 years,” Lyons said. “I gave him the information I had and within two hours, he had the answer. He called to confirm it was the right person, took her number and I called her.”

When Jackie Sutphin Piggott received the call, she was thankful someone memorialized her son.

“Mrs. Piggott cried tears of joy that people remembered her son, that the master sergeant never took off her son’s bracelet, that his wife would send it to her,” Lyons said. “I admit I had a tear or two also. She was so happy that her son was remembered and valued.”

Ironically, the bracelet arrived in the mail during the anniversary week of Sutphin’s passing, Piggott said.

This year, a few of Sutphin’s fellow soldiers came to visit his mother and the group talked about their experience and relationship, but they were unsure if Sutphin and Bonwell knew each other.

“I was excited because I thought it was nice, I just thought it was great that someone wore it that long,” Piggott said. “His military friends were here to visit me that were with him and we all went to the cemetery together. That was the first time i had met them.”

She said she was honored Bonwell wore it for that many years.

Sutphin’s sister, Candy Cooley, also was moved by this gesture.

“(Cooley) called me a little later also in tears of thanks. She explained how her mom had called crying, but they were tears of joy, that the phone call was the best thing that had happened since 2004,” Lyons aid.

Cooley said she was touched someone honored her brother up until their death.

“I just wanted to say how absolutely heartwarming it is to know people still care,” she said.

Lyons spoke with Cooley and told her about the Gold Star Families organization, which honors the families of lost soldiers. After meeting in person, Lyons presented her with his last Gold Star pin.

She shared the sweet mementoes of her brother and talked about his character, his love for the military and his friends and family.

“My brother was the funniest, smartest, most kind and selfless person I knew. He was dedicated and determined to finish anything he started,” Cooley said. “He loved what he did in the military and was known as happy. He was an all around great brother, friend, cousin, nephew and son. He was and always will be my best friend.”

Candice Black can be reached at cblack@newsandsentinel.com.

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