Orange County veterans are a step closer to having their own cemetery in Orange County – the only county in So Cal without one – with Gov. Gavin Newsom today signing legislation for a local site. 

Veterans have been trying to bring a state cemetery to Orange County for over a decade, pointing out their closest options were hours away for family members who wanted to visit the gravesite. 

“We are grateful to everyone that has been a part of this,” said Nick Berardino, one of the leaders of the veterans coalition that pushed for the cemetery. “This victory goes beyond just the veterans community, but it’s a victory for an example that as Americans, regardless of political party, we can work together.”

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

Local vets first tried to build a cemetery on the ruins of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine, but after nearly a decade of gridlock most veterans groups abandoned the site and pivoted to advocating for a piece of county owned land at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim Hills. 

[Read: How Did Irvine Fail to Build a Veterans Cemetery After Nearly a Decade of Debate?]

During last year’s Veteran’s Day, local vets discussed the decade-long effort with Voice of OC Publisher and Editor in Chief Norberto Santana, Jr.

With Newsom’s signature today, the next step in the process is for the state to study the site offered up by the county supervisors, who have also pledged $20 million toward the construction of the cemetery that will fund the state’s initial review of the site. 

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

While nearly every local elected official in Orange County – and veterans group – endorsed the site last year, the first half of the year saw State Senator Tom Umberg and State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva pushing competing bills as the vehicle to get it built. 

[Read: Scramble Breaks Out in Sacramento Over Leadership on a State Veterans Cemetery in Orange County]

State legislators ultimately approved the plan last month after the two combined their bills, delivering a unified bill through the state legislature with unanimous approval. 

[Read: Veterans Cemetery Bill Clears CA Legislature, Reaching Governor’s Desk After Tense Debate]

“I am so proud of the work that we have done to fulfill the promise made to our veterans and their families,” Quirk-Silva said in a statement to Voice of OC. “While this is a major victory in moving the project forward, there is still much work to be done.  I look forward to the further collaborative effort necessary to help make our veteran community’s dream a reality.”

From right, Governor Gavin Newsom and Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva. Credit: QUIRK SILVA'S OFFICE

The bill greenlights both the Gypsum Canyon site and any other potential location in Orange County for a state review, meaning legislators won’t have to pass a separate bill if they pivot to a different site in the future. 

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

That also leaves potential sites at Irvine’s Great Park open, but most veterans groups have made it clear they have no interest in going back to Irvine. 

“You guys are a decade too late,” said Bill Cook, one of the leaders of the veterans coalition, in a February interview. “We’ve certainly moved on.” 

Build the Great Park Veterans Cemetery, an Irvine based group that’s been calling for a cemetery in their hometown for years, is still pushing the city to keep that site open for a veterans cemetery.  

Right now, city council members are moving forward with putting a botanical garden on the proposed Irvine site. But earlier this month, the group sent a letter to the city from their lawyer warning them to not move forward. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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