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Throughout much of the transformation of Orange County’s former military bases into commercial, housing or recreational developments, veterans groups have waged a thus far fruitless battle to set aside space for a countywide veterans museum and memorial.

The WWII-era Santa Ana Army air base gave way to the Orange County Fairgrounds. The Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine is turning into the Great Park. And the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Tustin is in the midst of redevelopment planning.

With so much commercial profit made from the reuse of federal properties, many veterans groups argued over the past decade that the county’s political leaders needed to leverage that real estate to help permanently memorialize the role of military service in Orange County.

Yet over the past decade that effort seemingly ran counter to the free-market Republican philosophy of the area’s elected leaders as well as right smack into the stark fiscal cement wall that faced post-bankruptcy county governance in Orange County.

“Their plans for a museum were wonderful, but they didn’t pencil. That was my fear,” said former county Supervisor Bill Campbell, who dealt with the veteran community on the issue of a museum at Tustin.

“I met with them a number of times and told them I’d be supportive if they could do it without county funds,” Campbell said. “Given the finances of the county at the time — and we had alternatives for the hangar — it had to be self-sufficient”

That approach frustrated many veteran leaders like AMVETS Orange County Commander Terry McCarty, who have been scathing in their criticism of the Board of Supervisors, saying they are insensitive.

“The veteran community has been looking for recognition in Orange County,” said McCarty. “We’ve had millions stationed in Orange County … the only other area that has anything close is San Diego.”

“We don’t feel like we should be beggars. Yet that’s what we’ve been told we are, because we’re looking for recognition,” McCarty said.

Yet that debate may be shifting, with veterans groups in Orange County and across California appearing to have found a new and politically powerful ally in organized labor.

On Friday, leaders with the California Labor Federation and California AMVETS joined a host of legislative leaders announcing an aggressive package aimed at spurring more hiring of veterans as well as spurring job training and addressing homelessness.

The legislative push comes in the wake of a scathing report from the state auditor concluding the labor department “consistently failed to meet certain goals the U.S. Department of Labor established to assist veterans with finding employment.”

According to the audit, California is among the lowest-performing states when measuring the rate at which veterans participating in the department’s programs find jobs.

Auditors “noted that the department’s approach to managing its veterans programs has been to focus on complying with federal grant management requirements instead of finding ways to use its existing data to identify opportunities to improve services to veterans.”

Deanne Tate, who runs the Santa Ana-based Veterans First, welcomes labor’s support, saying she hopes they can do better helping veterans in job recruitment and training.

Highlighting the example of the “Helmets to Hard Hats” program for veterans, Tate said those kinds of concrete apprenticeships were effective. “I would love labor to be involved. Although they aren’t that big here in Orange County, they are across the state.

“I think it’s great that labor wants to reach out and help these kids. They have unbelievable skills.”

In Orange County, labor leader Nick Berardino, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, has emerged as a new leader in the effort.

Berardino, a recent Gov. Jerry Brown appointee to Orange County’s fair board, recently led an effort on the state panel to preserve an army barracks slated for demolition after county Supervisor John Moorlach publicly raised questions over whether the structure should be razed.

Himself a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, Berardino said he expects the barracks to be the center of a museum and memorial aimed at celebrating Orange County’s military history.

“We have the land, parking, and we have the building, so our costs will be substantially less than starting from scratch,” he said.

“That’s why I’m going to get this done. I’m not going to waste this opportunity.”

Berardino also spearheaded Monday’s Veterans Day free celebration at the Orange County Fairgrounds for veterans. While the venue will serve free hot dogs all day, it will also feature a veterans resource fair and job access for veterans.

And as a Fair Board member, he’s also exploring having nearby Orange Coast College work closely with the museum and job training projects.

McCarty said Berardino’s energy has ignited the veteran community, saying “if it wasn’t for Nick, we wouldn’t have somebody leading the charge.”

He expects a large turnout on Monday at the fairground in Costa Mesa.

“All my veteran organizations are 100 percent behind it,” McCartney said. “You’ll see a huge vet crowd on the 11th. We are making as huge a push as we did on D-Day and Normandy, and we’re not going to back off.”

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