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Happy Decoration Day

memorialday1I have a childhood friend, John W. Cook, whose name will be emblazoned forever on a granite wall in Washington D.C. John was the best friend of my oldest brother and they were thick as thieves, growing up in Southern California. John probably spent as much time at my house as he did at his own.

In 1967, John had a decision to make. He knew there was a high likelihood that he would be drafted, even if he was a full time college student. He also wanted very badly to fly. While in school, he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and flew on civil rescue missions frequently. It didn’t hurt that his dad held a flight endurance record or two, either. So, he made the decision to take the U.S. Army on his own terms and enlisted. He was given his opportunity for his “dream job” and was chosen for helicopter flight school. After graduation, he was promptly shipped off to Vietnam.

On February 19, 1967, while on a mission to pick up a Special Forces team in Laos, John’s helicopter was shot down by an enemy RPG. He survived the crash and was even medevaced out only to die 9 days later in a hospital in Japan. John was the co-pilot of the aircraft. At his death, John was awarded the Purple Heart to go with his Air Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetary. It is interesting to note, the crewman, Sgt. Fred Zabitosky, was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing John and his pilot from the burning aircraft during intense hostile fire.

So, here we are, 45 years later, on Memorial Day. And, this is who I think of.

Later today, I will be doing what I hope many of you will do, visiting a local cemetery for one of the many Memorial Day ceremonies held throughout the county. Most of them start at 10 am. It is a small price to repay by honor what they have given in life.

So, start your Memorial day, not with a hot dog bun in hand, but with a note of gratitude in your heart for Chief Warrant Officer John W, Cook jr. or one of your loved ones who may have died in conflict, serving their country. It is true that we continue to live in the greatest country in the world thanks to the sacrifice of millions of men and women who continue to give their lives in the name of freedom and who will never know another Summer with their friends.

They Made It To Arlington

Loading up at Saddleback

Loading up at Saddleback

5:15 am came quite early, especially at the end of my workweek. Today was a special day, though. This morning, it would be my distinct honor to meet some very special people.As I headed out the door, it felt a little warmer than the day before. Still, the heated handgrips and the heated seat would get plenty of use on the way over to meet the other riders.

After stopping at the local Starbucks for a hot cup of coffee (yes, the bike even has a drink holder), I hit the freeway and put the cruise control on. The Goldwing made quick work of the I5 and the 22 Freeway. Getting off in Westminster, I headed down to The American Legion Post 555 across from the Westminster Memorial Park. Already there, my companions were all huddled around coffee and donuts. Well, you don’t have to ask an old cop twice.

IMG_20131214_082357_964Soon enough, we headed down the road to Saddleback High School. Our assignment was to escort a bus full of Naval ROTC high school students to Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar for Wreathes Across America. WAA’s mission is to Remember, Honor, Teach. Today, we would be remembering fallen veterans and honoring those still living. It was started by one man, the owner of a wreath company, who laid “extra” wreathes at Arlington National Cemetery beginning in 1992. Before he knew it, many others wanted to help.

The annual tribute went on quietly for several years, until 2005, when a photo of the stones at Arlington, adorned with wreaths and covered in snow, circulated around the internet. Suddenly, the project received national attention. Thousands of requests poured in from all over the country from people wanting to help with Arlington, to emulate the Arlington project at their National and State cemeteries, or to simply share their stories and thank Morrill Worcester for honoring our nation’s heroes.

Today, Wreathes Across America events are held simultaneously in over 900 cemeteries and memorials across the United States.

American Legion Rider Chapter 555 was honored to be invited to escort the Saddleback High School NJROTC from their base to Pacific View Memorial Park.  More than 30 students IMG_20131214_082913_937clad in Naval uniform boarded the bus and headed south. 6 motors escorted them. Upon arrival, we were directed to parking and then headed to the event. If you have never been to the memorial at Pacific View, I recommend you take the time. It is right up front across from the chapel.

The event began promptly at 9 am. That’s because, as I said, the wreath laying at the memorial is timed to coincide with all locations. We were told more than 80,000 people were doing the same thing around the country (and we can’t even get 5 councilmembers to do the same thing…. I digress…). I have to say, it was pretty amazing. A gentleman named Chuck Pagel shared his experience aboard the USS Liberty, a ship deployed to the Middle East during the 6 Day War. Chuck described how the Israeli Defense Force “inadvertently” attacked their ship, mistaking it for an Egyptian Ship. Years later, it was revealed that the Liberty was an intelligence ship and many doubted the “mistake”.

IMG_20131214_090816_022Chuck outlined not only the horror of the day but the horror years later as he and others suffered nightmares, physical and physiological issues and general deterioration of his well-being. All signs of what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress. Chuck’s story was moving. It was also illustrative of the coverups and lies told to the American people all in the name of maintaining relationships with our allies.

We also heard from two Gold Star mothers. One mom lost both her husband in the Vietnam War and a son in the Iraqi War. She was courageous and powerful as she spoke of our duty to remember and honor veterans “that fight to keep our way of life today”. It’s interesting to note the Gold Star flag is not presented until a GS Mother speaks.

Wreathes Across America is an official function with the 2nd Saturday of December at 9 am designated as the official day and time. Many of you may have gone to Riverside, where wreathes are also laid. If you would like to participate next year, find a location that suits you and come on out. You will not be disappointed.

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Giving Back On Veterans Day

Thanks you to every veteran, active or discharged, for your serviceVeterans Day and Memorial Day usually cross over for me. I can’t help thinking of our living Vets without also thinking of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and security. Like many of you, I have friends who have paid a price for that freedom. All to often, is has been their life or a substantial injury – physical or psychological.

On Memorial Day, I can usually be found with my veterans group, at Westminster Memorial Park, paying homage to our fallen comrades. This ceremony is particularly special to me  – the remaining members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association lay a wreath along with the rest of us. This year, there were only two who could attend. I am told there are only three left in the county.

Veterans Day is different. As a former member of the United States Air Force during Vietnam, I felt it was rather self-serving to celebrate a time that I was not particularly proud of. I’ve written about my experiences coming home in uniform. And, although the military gave me a start in life, it was not something I thought much of after my discharge. That is, until Veterans Day of 2005.

On that particular day, my wife talked me into  going down to Peppertree Park where The American Legion was hosting a celebration. During the ceremonies, the emcee asked all the veterans of each respective war to stand up. They were greeted with applause.

When it came time for the Vietnam Era vets to stand, I didn’t. My wife kept hitting me in the ribs until finally, exasperated, I stood. Instead of the usual applause, the emcee said, “Welcome Home” in recognition of the general feeling of Americans towards servicemen of the era.

It was the first time someone said that to me. I was flabbergasted, dumfounded and -mostly- embarrassed. Later, it gave me the courage to thank others and welcome them home.  It’s something that, I am proud to say, has become a national trend. In the years since, I have been welcomed home, bear hugged and thanked for my service more times than I will ever be able to count. I am grateful and humbled. Today, I still thank men and women in uniform for their service as well as veterans I’ve come to know. I surround myself with other veterans from organizations like The American Legion and the American Legion Riders. Both organizations give back tremendously to our veterans who have given so much for us.

homelessThere is a gap, however. Many veterans, too many in fact, are homeless. Many others who suffer PTS are written off as mentally ill. County veterans organizations and the OC Veterans Service Office work hard both politically and at the grassroots level to change national policy and get veterans the help they need. And, you can help.

On Veterans Day, public and private sector labor unions are taking the lead to obtain needed services for our veterans, on the heels of the recent Orange County Veterans Stand Down, the Orange County Employees Association, in conjunction with other county unions will be hosting a “mini-stand down” of sorts at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

We are hosting a FREE Veterans Day community celebration Nov. 11 to say thank you to our veterans, to connect them with the services they need, and to give them our gratitude. There are so many ways for you and your family to give back at this eventfrom saying a simple “thank you” to sending a care package, to writing a holiday card for a veteran.

This is our opportunity to show the entire community our commitment to the values of our country and the importance of public service. And it’s FREE (so are the famous OCEA hot dogs!)

So please bring your children. And let’s stand together to say “thank you” and to fight for them the way they fought for us.

The day begins with a motorcycle rally & run from the OC Labor Federation in Orange to the fairgrounds. The rally begins at 10:30 AM with Kickstands up at 11:30 AM. At the fairgrounds, the general public will be treated to static military displays and be able to make cards for overseas military and send care packages in a program partnership with the Orange County Register. There will be a resource fair available for veterans as well. Form more information, click on the links and also go to the VeteransandLabor.com Website.

OCEA General Manager, Nick Berardino, a Vietnam Veteran himself, hopes that everyone will come out, enjoy the day and say thanks to the veterans of our community. I think we should also thank Nick. Not just for his work with the public unions in doing a remarkable job for their members but, especially for his service to the greatest country in the world.

Welcome home, Nick.

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A Thoughtful Memorial Day

tomb-of-the-unknown-soldierI have a childhood friend, John W. Cook, whose name will be emblazoned forever on a granite wall in Washington, D.C. John was the best friend of my oldest brother and they were thick as thieves growing up in Southern California. John probably    spent as much time at my house as he did at his own.   

In 1967, John had a decision to make. He knew there was a high likelihood that he would be drafted, even if he was a full-time college student. He also very badly wanted to fly. While in school, he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and flew on civil rescue missions frequently. It didn’t hurt that his dad held a flight endurance record or two, either. So, he made the decision to take the Army on his own terms and enlisted. He was given his opportunity for his “dream job” and was chosen for helicopter flight school.

After graduation, he was promptly shipped off to Vietnam. On February 19, 1967, while on a mission to pick up a Special Forces team in Laos, John’s helicopter was shot down by an enemy RPG. He survived the crash and was even medevaced out only to die nine days later in a hospital in Japan. John was the co-pilot of the aircraft. At his death, John was awarded the Purple Heart to go with his Air Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His crewman, Sgt. Fred Zabitosky, was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing John and his pilot from the burning aircraft during intense hostile fire.

Forty-six years later, on Memorial Day, this is who I think of.

On Monday I will be doing what I hope many of you will do: visiting a local cemetery for one of the many Memorial Day ceremonies held throughout the county. It is a small price to pay, to honor what they have given in life.    So, start your Memorial Day not with a hotdog bun in hand, but with a note of gratitude in your heart for Chief Warrant Officer John W. Cook Jr. or one of your loved ones who might have died in conflict, serving their country.    It is true that we continue to live in the greatest country in the world thanks to the sacrifice of millions of men and women who continue to give their lives in the name of freedom and who will never know another summer with their friends.

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