New executive director for Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial: National recognition to be sought for site

For the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial Association, the hiring of new executive director Tim Chelling marks the beginning of a new era — not one of lawsuits and controversy as in years past, but one of national recognition and appreciation.

And Chelling has his sights set on getting the Mt. Soledad Memorial on par with other great war memorials.

“This Memorial salutes living and deceased veterans, which is unique. It is about the stories of these veterans, it’s not just a standard memorial ... you can feel the presence of these people when you go up there,” he said. “The last count is that there are 4,535 plaques up there. All those plaques are stories and you could spend hours reading them, and that’s what the Memorial is about. It’s not about controversy or church-and-state litigation, it’s about veterans and the military.”

The Mt. Soledad Memorial was in the depths of litigation for almost 30 years, with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) arguing that the large, white cross associated with it, should be removed from government-owned property because it endorsed one religion over another. However, in July 2015, the Department of Defense sold its half-acre parcel to the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association. When the sale was complete, the property on which the Memorial and cross sit became private, nullifying the argument.

“Now we’re looking at taking this to the next level, including national recognition for what is really a spectacular and incredible Memorial,” Chelling said. “When you get to this point, you look at where the community wants to go. In this case, I’m talking about the veteran’s community in addition to the San Diego community. I’m looking at examples such as the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.; The National WW II Museum in New Orleans; Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Arlington, Virginia. Name your great war memorials and we want this memorial there, too.”

He went on to explain that the granite used to create the plaques on Mt. Soledad is the same granite used on the plaques for the Vietnam Wall. “That is the quality and caliber that this Memorial entails,” he said. “You can see that in the two major events we have here — the Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day ceremonies. When you attend those events, you see this is major league and spectacular. It’s time for the world to see that.”

Always on the scene

Chelling said he grew up in Los Angeles and joined the Air Force after high school. In the service, he was a military journalist in Asia. “I basically acted a combat correspondent,” he said. At the conclusion of a tour in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, he came to San Diego.

From there, he migrated from military journalist to conventional journalist, and was the editorial director for NBC. Switching to the political sector, Chelling said he was “lucky enough” to acquire a job as deputy press secretary for Pete Wilson when he was Mayor of San Diego in the 1970s. From there, he moved to the non-profit world and worked as the executive director of the Sharp Coronado Hospital Foundation.

To prepare for his role at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial Association, Chelling said he went to the Memorial for inspiration. “I hadn’t been up there in years, but I remember the first time I was there and was amazed by the view ... I saw this spectacular Memorial and thought it was incredible,” he said.

Fortunate for him, the job allows Chelling to visit the site a few times a week. “The Memorial itself has quite an impact and I try to talk to people and see what their reactions are. I’m like a secret shopper up there. The reactions are inevitably that their socks are knocked off and they are stunned by the Memorial. A lot of people go up there for the view, but then they turn around and see the Memorial and it quickly takes over the view.”