Call of Duty
“These flags will wave in perpetuity to Orange County’s heroes,” said Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Foundation, who led the long campaign to have a veterans cemetery on the former MCAS base. “The veterans of Orange County chose to protect the nation and our freedoms—with some making the ultimate sacrifice for our country. With this Southern California Veterans Memorial Park, we can thank them by offering a final resting place right here in their own community and providing a daily reminder to all of us of the price of freedom.”
Local, state and federal officials joined veteran’s groups and invited guests at the 125-acre site to dedicate what will be Orange County’s first veterans cemetery. 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 125 acres near the Orange County Great Park.
The ceremony opened as the 300 invited guests gazed into the sky to witness a fly-over 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 the veterans gathered at the ceremony, 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, which drew veterans and invited guests who at times saluted several speakers who came to thank the servicemen and servicewomen everywhere 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.
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 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 OC and California taxpayers more than $50 million for the cemetery’s first phase. Construction at the 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.”
Haddad, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva and Irvine City Councilmember Melissa Fox, who spoke movingly of her father’s and family’s service in the Korean conflict, received the most enthusiastic reception from the veterans, with many standing to salute each as they spoke.
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 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 Orange County Supervisors Michele Steel and Todd Spitzer; 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 the man who worked over decades to make the dream of an Orange County site 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 capped the series of moving speeches honoring 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.
Agran sues over cemetery
Despite unprecedented bi-partisan support among state and local officials as well as Veterans groups for locating the future Veterans Cemetery at the site called the “strawberry fields,” former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran continues to spend taxpayer dollars to overturn the city council’s decision to relocate the long-awaited cemetery to the 125-acre site. An Agran-backed effort to qualify a ballot measure that would essentially return the cemetery to its original site near schools and homes near Irvine Boulevard north of the Orange County Great Park is now in the hands of Orange County officials. Agran helped lead a signature-gathering drive to qualify the measure for next year’s general election ballot and the registrar of voters is now working to verify the group did indeed capture enough valid signatures. The city must pay the registrar of voters $3.40 per signature for verification.
On a second front, Agran and two others have sued the city to overturn the council’s decision in favor of the cemetery land swap. Agran and the other plantiffs argue the agreement to swap parcels should be nullified because the council failed to take appropriate steps in reaching that decision on Sept. 26. Proponents of the cemetery and the strawberry fields site say that Agran’s actions could delay construction of the cemetery for years.
Irvine Mayor Don Wagner sharply criticized Agran’s actions telling the Orange County Register, “They are just trying to slow (the cemetery) down...Larry’s just making up problems.” FivePoint CEO Emile Haddad told the paper, “It’s very unfortunate for Larry and others to be using the veterans as a political tool.” FivePoint was also named in Agran’s lawsuit.