For roughly a decade, the fight to build an Orange County veterans cemetery at competing Irvine sites was stalled by politics and developer interests until one group of local veteran leaders changed the battlefield completely earlier this year.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

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They landed at Gypsum Canyon.

And never looked back.

“It seemed a simple ask,” said Steve Spriggs, a well-known OC veteran leader and former commander of the OC American Legion, of the idea to build a veterans cemetery in Orange County.

It didn’t seem fair to ask aging veterans to drive all the way out to San Diego, Riverside or Los Angeles to bury their buddies. 

“Orange County was built by veterans,” said Spriggs, noting the military background of the region’s leaders in the development industry and elected officials. 

Spriggs served in the U.S Army in Vietnam.

“It’s one of the most successful veteran communities in the county,” Spriggs notes. 

“El Toro seemed like the ideal place,” said Bill Cook, who served in the Marines in Vietnam.

Cook is a prominent veteran leader who led early efforts to designate a veterans cemetery on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Back then, Cook remembers “we were just voices in the wilderness … we thought it would be ideal.” 

The veterans cemetery debate in Irvine has drawn on longer than the United States’ involvement in both World Wars — combined. 

[Read: How Did Irvine Fail To Build A Veterans Cemetery After Nearly A Decade Of Debate?]

Since 2012, Irvine council members have pivoted between a series of different competing sites, along with two ballot initiatives from the public.

State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva, got state legislation passed endorsing a veteran cemetery in Orange County during her re-election bid in 2014. State Senator Tom Umberg also has standing legislation advocating a site in Irvine. 

Yet after a decade of playing inside politics at Irvine City Hall, the idea of a regional veterans cemetery appeared totally stuck between the jockeying of a local developer, a series of council majorities, nervous neighbors hoping for a shopping center and a future of competing ballot initiatives along with endless potential lawsuits. 

Tired of the stalemate of the inside game, a series of key veteran leaders coalesced around a different plan. 

They went public. 

YouTube video

Political organizing isn’t exactly what veterans are known for, even though politicians are adept at campaigning on promises to veterans.

That’s what makes this movement around the Gypsum Canyon veterans cemetery so different. 

Just as Cook was an early proponent of El Toro, he was the first to publicly announce the need to disengage from Irvine and consider building a 100-acre veterans cemetery an iconic piece of open space donated by Donald Bren back in 2014.

“We just needed to get organized, to form the coalition we have,” said Spriggs of the coalition of veteran groups that took off this year to move past Irvine’s two stalled sites and build the cemetery elsewhere.

Their effort is right out of a basic organizing playbook and offers resident activists across the county a host of lessons on the power of consensus and hard work it takes to organize politicians around any goal. 

These veteran leaders were challenged to present Orange County’s political leadership with a clear consensus about where veterans wanted to be buried; Irvine or Gypsum Canyon. 

And that’s exactly what they did. 

The veterans’ organization efforts led to near universal support for the cemetery proposal on county-owned land at Gypsum Canyon.  

They gathered support from virtually every veterans group in Orange County, county supervisors and every single one of OC’s 34 city councils, starting with Anaheim and ending with Irvine last month.

And they did it in about three months. 

“Hard, hard, hard … seven days a week, nonstop work … that’s what this took,” said Nick Bernardino, a retired Orange County labor leader and combat Marine who served in Vietnam.

“They contacted leadership with various organizations,” Berardino said, adding that eventually, “It pyramided.” 

Berardino, a former OC Fair Board member who spearheaded efforts to build the veterans museum, Heroes Hall, at the fairgrounds, called the cemetery efforts textbook consensus building. 

“Organizing 101.”

Nick Berardino leads the guests in a “OO-RAH” A battle cry familiar among marines. Berardino served as a machine gunner in Vietnam. He is now the Heroʼs Hall Foundation president. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The coalition of veterans systematically called every veterans group and leader across Orange County. 

After winning endorsements at the posts, they took to the city halls in a methodical manner, working through two holidays — Memorial Day and Fourth of July — asking city council members to adopt resolutions supporting a veterans cemetery at Gypsum Canyon instead of Irvine. 

For Bobby McDonald, a former chairman of Orange County’s Veterans Service Office, holidays offered a chance for one-on-one meetings, a chance to talk to people about the idea of Gypsum Canyon.

“I saw it as a sport during Memorial Day get-togethers … at the VFW in Anaheim,” McDonald said, adding that he “worked the room” to build support behind the Gypsum Canyon site.

“It doesn’t hurt to have a barbecue.” said McDonald, who served in the Navy during Vietnam.

For civic projects and the coalitions needed to build them, McDonald noted how key it is for civic leaders to listen. 

“We got a chance to talk. We found out what the issues were … what the vets wanted to hear,” he said. 

McDonald credited Berardino for offering key spokespeople “myth buster” talking points for the comparisons between Gypsum Canyon and Irvine. 

“It worked,” McDonald said. 

“It was not atypical from coalition building,” Berardino said, noting the importance of leadership and hard work from vets like Spriggs, Cook and McDonald, who were able to directly contact their colleagues throughout the county. 

The idea of a third site for a veterans cemetery was first floated back in 2018 when then-County Supervisor Todd Spitzer was running for DA and pitched the idea of the iconic canyon as an effective backup in case the two sites in Irvine got complicated.

Spitzer’s back up plan seemingly paid off for veterans.

As things got complicated in Irvine during the early summer, Cook and others looked toward the county.

The veterans efforts led to a rare move of regional leadership, and county supervisors actually stepped up with a plan.

And real money.

A $20 million commitment from supervisors, led by their colleague Supervisor Don Wagner — a former Irvine mayor who knows the issues surrounding the veterans cemetery. 

It’s a rare thing to see city councils across Orange County as well as the county government agree on one thing. 

Now the big question is which way State Senator Umberg will vote.

Umberg carries the legislation to create a veterans cemetery in Orange County, but still reportedly prefers Irvine. 

A veteran during the pledge of allegiance at the Veterans Cemetery Media event at Gypsum Canyon on July 1, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Right now, the Gypsum site is undergoing a final review to figure out how much it would cost to build a cemetery there. 

Proponents of an Irvine cemetery site say the canyon’s history of wildfires and earthquakes mean it could be too costly, but so far they haven’t swayed one major veterans group or city council.  

Last year, following the success of the veterans coalition around Gypsum Canyon, Umberg agreed to hold off on his bill to hear more from Orange County residents. 

Yet given the overwhelming organizing effort by these veterans this past year, I’m wondering who else is left to hear from?

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the open space now under consideration for a veterans cemetery was donated in 2006. We regret the error.

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