Dozens of truckers along the 91 and 241 freeways led an impromptu honking applause on Wednesday morning as a massive American flag arose over Gypsum Canyon, hoisted over what could become Orange County’s first, state veterans cemetery. 

“This is iconic,” said Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, as he looked up at the flag from the site. “This is the most important moment in Orange County political history.” 

Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, during his remarks at the Nov. 30, Gypsum Canyon Veteran Cemetery site flag raising event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

While the flag was first unveiled at the Gypsum Canyon site last year, this week was the culmination of years of work from local veterans advocating for their own local cemetery, pointing out how their only other current option as veterans was to drive all the way to Riverside County. 

The Gypsum Canyon Veteran Cemetery Site flag raising event on Nov. 30, 2022. A select few, made up of public officials, veterans and community members helped raise the flag while the rest of the attendees looked from afar. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

For most of the past decade, the discussion was focused on putting a cemetery in Irvine on the remains of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, But veterans left the city behind after years of gridlock left them without any concrete plans to move forward and the possibility of litigation at both potential sites in the city. 

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

County supervisor and former Irvine mayor Don Wagner, who led the event, brought up the division in Irvine, and said the county had moved past it to bring the cemetery to Gypsum. 

“We’re going to have a place of respect,” Wagner said. “The only way we get men and women to rally under that flag…is if we get men and women to come together, indivisible.” 

Every speaker praised the unity shown by local lawmakers, pointing to the fact that every city councilmember in Orange County approved the site aside from Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, the primary proponent of the original El Toro cemetery sites. 

“We’ve been in a divisive place,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, the first lawmaker to begin pushing for the cemetery back in 2014.

“Democrats and Republicans can work together and we do work together,” said Quirk Silva.  

Supervisor Lisa Bartlet, left, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, middle, and Supervisor Don Wagner, right, pose for photographs on Nov. 30, 2022 during the Gypsum Canyon Veteran Cemetery Site flag raising event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

But there’s still one big, unanswered question. 

“The question is always the same,” said Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and one of the first veterans to start pushing publicly for a cemetery in Orange County. “How long do I have to wait?” 

Bill Cook, chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation, during his remarks at the Nov. 30, Gypsum Canyon Veteran Cemetery Site flag raising event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

While the flag is planted, it’ll likely be at least a few more years before the first veterans are laid to rest at the site. 

Both Quirk-Silva and Wagner said they hoped for a groundbreaking in 2024, with Wagner adding the first interments likely wouldn’t come until 2025 at the earliest. 

The next step is for the county to pay the $700,000 required to study the site and come up with a plan, which Wagner said they’re ready to do as soon as the state notifies them they can. 

From there, the state Department of Veterans Affairs will review the site and come back with a cost estimate, which Wagner estimates will be somewhere around $100 million. 

“We have taken this hill,” Berardino said. “That flagpole stands for strength, and that flag stands for glory.” 

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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