This may be the last Memorial Day that Orange County goes without its own veterans cemetery. 

For years, veterans and their families have had to drive to Riverside, Los Angeles or San Diego counties to visit a relative buried in a veterans cemetery.

Orange County veterans have been fighting for more than a decade to end that long drive. 

This Memorial Day weekend, it looks like their long march may have finally reached its mark, up in the Sacramento legislature. 

After a long silence, two key Sacramento legislative leaders from Orange County – Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva and Senator Tom Umberg – confirmed they have begun talks to merge their competing bills to create a veterans cemetery in Orange County. 

“Let’s get this done,” said Quirk Silva last Thursday just before the holiday weekend about the need to move with deliberate speed on a veterans cemetery. 

“We see our veterans aging and dying, not just from WWII but now Korea and Vietnam,” she said, adding that she wants those veterans “to be able to see where they want to be buried.”

A Decade in the Trenches

Local veteran leaders have spent more than a decade in the civic trenches, fighting for a cemetary of their own – something Voice of OC reporters have chronicled at every step along the way.

A coalition of veterans wants a veterans cemetery adjacent to the Great Park.

For years, it looked as if Irvine city leaders would host the aspirations of OC veterans to have their own cemetery, with officials and developer, FivePoint Holdings, offering millions to support various competing plans to build a cemetery in Irvine.

Governor Jerry Brown talked about supporting a veterans cemetery in Orange County at a Friday press conference in Irvine. Credit: Jeff Antenore/Voice of OC

Yet after years of deliberations, elections, ballot measures and threats of lawsuits, veterans groups announced they were publicly disengaging from Irvine last year – with many using profane language to describe their experience with city politicians in Irvine.

A crowd gathered in the Irvine city hall chambers Tuesday night, Sept. 26, 2017, to observe and comment on the Irvine veterans cemetery plans. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC
The attendees during the pledge of allegiance at the last Irvine City council meeting on June 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OC Veteran leaders eventually moved to support their own competing site across the county in Anaheim at a place called Gypsum Canyon – a sleepy, rural offramp, just off the 91 freeway on land donated years back by the Irvine Company’s Donald Bren.

Two veterans sit in the back of a jeep during a tour of the Gypsum Canyon proposed veterans cemetery site, which rests between the 91 and 241 toll road. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Unlike the land in Irvine, this cemetery site came with institutional zoning right out of the package – something that always offers any project a solid base of protection from lawsuit threats or large scale resident protests.

Like in Irvine. 

To firm up their desires and dreams for the new site, a veterans coalition took to old fashion organizing tactics.

A veteran looks out to the proposed veterans site located between the 91 and 241 toll road. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The March Out of Irvine

They wanted out of Irvine. And they were prepared to march as far as it took. 

They went to every VFW hall in Orange County and detailed their plan for Gypsum Canyon and were open about why they wanted out of the political morass that was Irvine. 

They eventually won the support of every local hall in town. 

Then, they did the same at local city halls, winning votes at every single one. 

Back in 2018, County Supervisors – led by then-Supervisor, now DA Todd Spitzer – moved to authorize the Gypsum land for a veterans cemetery. 

Since then, county supervisors under the leadership of Supervisor Don Wagner have worked with state officials maintaining their support for the site, committing up to $20 million and guaranteeing payment for early site reviews.

Veterans, public officials and community members raise shovels to celebrate the groundbreaking for Gypsum Canyon site. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

All that momentum got Assemblywoman Quirk Silva – who has led legislative efforts on the veterans cemetery as far back as 2016 – to craft authorizing legislation that quickly swept through the State Assembly on unanimous votes earlier this month that could get quickly on the governor’s desk.

But then the effort seemingly got stuck in the political mud. 

State Senator Tom Umberg – himself a veteran – also holds key legislation crafting a veterans cemetery. Yet his bill seems to leave Irvine open as an option. 

After a decade fighting in Irvine, veteran leaders aren’t interested in any sites there. 

And they haven’t been shy about publicly pressing Umberg to go with them to Anaheim, oftentimes in a very vocal, even profane, way.

Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, speaks at the July 1 Veterans Cemetery media event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Yet Umberg didn’t budge. 

There are some Irvine veterans and residents that question whether a site at Gypsum Canyon is workable and cost effective, often noting that Irvine already has a number of studies conducted by the state. Councilman Larry Agran voted against an Irvine City Council resolution in October 2021 supporting the Gypsum Canyon site, potentially the only OC city politician to vote against the proposal.

Yet toxic clean up issues and opposition from neighbors to the primary site proposed by the city continue to complicate Irvine as a viable option, something that many veterans and officials now accept has doomed that city’s prospects as a host site. 

Yet throughout, the debate has remained nasty.

One Nasty Debate

Umberg told me this weekend that the tone of the debate had become an issue in his mind. 

“It’s been disappointing to see the acrimony in the debate over the location of the cemetery,” Umberg said. ”Given that we all want to see a cemetery built to honor veterans and their families’ sacrifice.” 

Nick Berardino, a leader for the Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR), which has been a lead organization for many vets advocating for a veterans cemetery, acknowledged that the debate has been a rough one.

Nick Bernardino, President of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, speaks at the July 1 Veterans Cemetery media event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Early on, there were distinctly two different positions on where the cemetery should be built. During that time, it became very political and a little chippy in the paint,” he said. “But I think people are far beyond that now. And everyone is ready and anxious to get this done.”

Now, when I first checked in with Quirk Silva earlier this week, she confirmed the stalemate with Umberg.

She noted her legislation – connected to Gypsum Canyon – had successfully gained the support of the state assembly and heralded the organizing achievement by local veterans and added that there was broad city and county support for the site.

The missing component, she said, was connecting with Umberg, spurring a discussion toward melding two competition bills in a way that can get to the governor’s desk quickly.
As generations of veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam continue aging, Quirk-Silva said speed is important in giving veterans an ability to plan for their burials.

Preparations for Memorial weekend began on Friday May 28, 2021. Volunteers placed flags over members of the armed forces. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Progress?

A day after our conversation on Thursday, Quirk-Silva reached out to confirm that she and Umberg had finally connected and talks looked promising. 

By the end of Friday, Umberg also confirmed progress saying he thinks Quirk-Silva’s legislation and his existing bill can successfully be merged, although the Irvine issue seems still out there. 

Nonetheless, Umberg is for the first time signaling that getting such a project like the veterans cemetery sited in Irvine is likely not going to happen.

“Yes, I think that Sharon and I both want to see a cemetery built here in Orange County and we’re talking to how we can expedite that process,” Umberg said. 

“We will have something by close of session,” he added, stressing his agreement that Orange County veterans and their families deserve closure on the issue after a decade.  

That kind of news may indeed offer a number of veterans some closure this holiday.

Planning For Their Own Memorial Day

During their bike ride, a father and son stop to pay their respects to the fallen troops of Iraq and Afghanistan on May 23, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Beyond the tough battles regarding the cemetery is the fact that this Memorial Day is a time for all of us to look to the sky. In remembrance of those who gave so much for all of us,” Berardino said. 

President Abraham Lincoln gave one of his most noted speeches and the best ever example of crisp, tight writing – the Gettysburg Address –  at the dedication of  a veterans cemetery after a major battle in July, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. 

Each Memorial Day, it’s a worthy enterprise to stop and read the brief, 10 sentences that make up the address, which is under 300 words but stands as a monument to freedom, liberty, self government.

A veterans cemetery, as Berardino notes, “articulates the distinction.”

“Those who served, took an oath to give our lives for freedom, to protect the U.S. Constitution,” he said.  

“If you step up and do that. One of the benefits is you get to get buried in a place in recognition of that sacrifice. And you have that comfort of being with people that you … somehow … who you have comfort with… relate to,” he said. “In this way, you know, those are people you are connected to and sacrificed with.” 

For the combat veterans, Berardino said, “It’s like being with other people who you know would give their life for you. You’re with people in death, who made sure you would be alive.”

“And so you celebrate that eternal peace with the person that you knew you could trust through hell on earth.”

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You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

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