Southern California Veterans Cemetery site dedicated
In a rare show of strong broad-based bipartisan support, local, state and federal officials joined veterans groups and invited guests at the 125-acre site to dedicate the land that will become the final resting place for thousands of military veterans. The Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, the city of Irvine and FivePoint’s partnership (Heritage Fields El Toro, LLC) hosted the flag raising ceremony for the Southern California Veterans Cemetery on land near the Orange County Great Park.
As the hour-long ceremony opened, an overflow crowd of 300 invited guests gazed into the sky witness a poignant flyover featuring a squadron of World War II-era aircraft. The planes circled the former base where thousands of Marines flew off to fight for their country overseas, many never to return. The pilots maneuvered their planes into the “missing man formation,” an aerial salute to those many thousands who will be buried at the site, and to those who never returned from their service overseas.
Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner led the event at which guests stood and saluted several speakers who came to thank the servicemen and servicewomen there, and throughout Orange County and the country for their service. “This is a milestone for all Orange County residents and especially our veterans and their families, who have championed for this cemetery for years,” Mayor Wagner said. “The city of Irvine is grateful for their service and is committed to housing a memorial park that will honor their service and sacrifices.”
Irvine City Councilmember Christina Shea recounted the history of the effort to locate a veterans cemetery on the MCAS El Toro base, an effort led by Vietnam veteran Bill Cook, chairman of Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.
Orange County veterans have long wanted a cemetery in Orange County; currently, the closest veterans cemeteries are in Riverside and San Diego counties. With the closure of MCAS El Toro in 1999, the veterans have worked tirelessly to have the cemetery located on the former base.
Their mission moved closer to becoming a reality in September when the Irvine City Council approved a land-exchange proposal put forth by the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and the FivePoint partnership. The city’s agreement with FivePoint to exchange a former site for the cemetery for the strawberry fields land accelerates the construction timeline to create the cemetery.
State veterans officials at CalVet estimated it would have taken $77 million to demolish the many buildings and prepare the former site for a cemetery. Moving the site to the undeveloped strawberry fields will save Orange County and California taxpayers more than $50 million for the cemetery’s first phase. Construction at the strawberry fields site could begin as early as October 2018.
“We’re honored to be part of this long-overdue dedication to the local men and women who served their country with valor and honor,” said Emile Haddad, FivePoint chairman and CEO. “Thanks to the vision and persistence of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, our service members and their families soon will have a thoughtfully-planned local memorial site that forever conveys the community’s deepest gratitude.”
There was much patriotism and limited politics at the event, with several speakers mentioning the bipartisan nature of the support for the veterans cemetery at all levels of government. Some speakers alluded to a faction in Irvine seeking to delay and damage the effort to establish the approved veterans cemetery by returning it to the $77 million site. As the veterans, many elderly, rose to pledge allegiance to the American flag as it was raised over the site where they wish to be buried, the effort to deny and delay their dream of a veterans cemetery seemed even more demeaned and disingenuous.
Others who spoke during the ceremony included Irvine Councilmember Melissa Fox, who spoke movingly of her father’s and family’s service in the Korean conflict; Orange County Supervisors Michele Steel and Todd Spitzer; Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and Assemblyman Steven Choi; State Senator Janet Nguyen; and U.S. Representatives Lou Correa and Dana Rohrabacher.
All expressed their gratitude to Orange County service members and congratulated veterans leader Bill Cook, who worked for decades to make the dream of an Orange County place where the brave men and women of the U.S. military could find a final resting place.
A 21-gun salute by a local American Legion color guard troop honored America’s servicemen and servicewomen, including an estimated 132,000 veterans who live in Orange County. As the U.S. flag was raised, it flew above and beside the California state flag and flags representing each of the five branches of the United States Armed Forces. As a bagpiper played the hymns of the five service branches—Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps—veterans stood and cheered, while many civilians looking on wiped away tears.