Calif. city dedicates, showcases site for Orange County's first veterans cemetery
By TOMOYA SHIMURA | The Orange County Register (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 28, 2017
IRVINE — Military veterans finally will have a resting place right here in Orange County, at the former El Toro Marine base.
That’s the message nearly 300 people, many of whom were veterans, received at the dedication ceremony on Friday, Oct. 27 of a 125-acre parcel near the I-5 and I-405 interchange that Irvine plans to donate to the state for a veterans cemetery.
“This is an acknowledgment of our service,” said Bill Cook, a Vietnam War veteran who heads the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and has advocated for the cemetery since 1999.
He was among dozens donning yellow “Southern California Veterans Cemetery 2017” caps at the ceremony held in the middle of what is currently strawberry fields but at one time was the end of a runway of the El Toro base.
“This place will become, when it’s fully built out, monumental,” Cook said. “It will be centerpiece right there when people come into Orange County and they’ll see the stones and they’re going to know that service was done here.”
The ceremony took place the day after Mayor Don Wagner signed an agreement to receive the land from developer FivePoint. In exchange, the city will give FivePoint the same amount of land just north of the Orange County Great Park, where the city initially had planned to put the cemetery.
The new cemetery is expected to relieve a shortage in military gravesites in Southern California. The national cemetery in Los Angeles is at capacity and the one in Riverside requires a lengthy wait.
When fully built out, the cemetery will offer more than 210,000 gravesites, enough to serve the needs of veterans for the next 100 years, according to state officials.
The ceremony, hosted by the city, FivePoint and the memorial park foundation, kicked off with a flyover by four World War II planes and concluded with the raising of a U.S. flag at the site, a gun salute and bagpipe music. Federal, state, county and city officials attended the event.
But the gathering was as much an appeal to veterans and the public that the project is moving forward with bipartisan support as it was a celebration.
Some residents are collecting signatures to overturn the city’s decision and put the cemetery at the original site, which was also part of the former El Toro base. Supporters of the Save the Veterans Cemetery campaign, funded by the Irvine Community News and Views, say there’s still no guarantee a cemetery will get built at the freeway site. They contend the original site is a better location.
However, city officials and veterans say such an attempt actually delays or jeopardizes the project.
If things go smoothly, the city will be able to donate the freeway site to the state in January, Councilwoman Melissa Fox said. Groundbreaking could take place as early as October 2018, state Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva said.
But if the opposition collects about 12,000 signatures or more for a referendum, that could be delayed until after the November 2018 election, Fox said.
“Each time we’ve hit a milestone, there’s been a stumbling block or those who had wanted to stop it, and each time we have moved forward … to make this happen,” Fox said. “I have absolute faith that we will continue until this is brought to fruition, until we have a first service here.”
James Coulston, a 61-year-old Vietnam War veteran and a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, rode his Harley-Davidson to the ceremony from his Anaheim Hills home.
“This is actually great for me because this is where I might end up,” he said.
Coulston said he believes the former El Toro base is the right place for the cemetery. Some of his fellow service members left there and didn’t returned to the U.S. alive, he said.
He and other veterans at the ceremony said they prefer the freeway site to the original location because the former is more accessible and visible.
“It’s a real surprise to me that this happened,” he said. “It is a big relief.”
©2017 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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