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‘Guardian angels’ of the military: Veterans Day ceremony on Mount Soledad pays tribute to nurses

The color guard from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego marches at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial.
The color guard from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego marches at a Nov. 13 event honoring the Nurse Corps of the Army, Navy and Air Force at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Other local commemorations include a plaque honoring Bill Kellogg at the National Veterans Memorial and 235 care packages for active servicewomen.

Just as she had done for him more than 50 years ago, Army veteran John Baca kept Angela Liakos in his sight and under his care on a warm afternoon Nov. 13 atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla.

Wearing a Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck like a bolo tie, Baca, 72, was seated next to the frail Liakos, a 93-year-old retired Navy captain and nurse, at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial.

The event honored all military veterans but paid special honor to nurses such as Liakos who served in the Nurse Corps of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

During the hourlong event, Baca sometimes took Liakos’ hand and touched her arm. He removed his cap and placed it gently above her eyeglasses on her head of curly silver hair to shield her face from the sun. He smiled generously, being sure to make eye contact often, letting her know in unspoken terms that all was well.

“She’s my guardian angel,” said Baca, an Army specialist 4th class in Vietnam who was seriously injured in combat on Feb. 10, 1970.

That night, a grenade landed near him, and acting swiftly, Baca threw his steel helmet on top of it.

“Time kind of stopped, my life flashed before me,” Baca said. “I saw my mother’s face; I saw my sister.”

The grenade exploded, and Baca absorbed the fragments with his body, the shrapnel singeing his abdomen.

“My lieutenant ... lay beside me removing all the burning metal from my stomach and my legs,” Baca said.

Army veteran John Baca stays at the side of Angelina Liakos, 93.
Army veteran John Baca stays at the side of Angelina Liakos, 93, the Navy nurse who cared for Baca in San Diego after he was wounded in Vietnam.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Baca saved eight soldiers from serious injury or death, and he was presented the Medal of Honor in June 1971 by then-President Richard Nixon. Baca also has been awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Air Medal.

Baca first met Liakos when he was flown to San Diego to receive care at Balboa Naval Hospital, where she was running the nursing contingent. He said Liakos watched over him “like a second mother,” visiting him every day to check on his healing during his road to recovery.

“The nurses were our guardian angels in Vietnam,” Baca said. “I sat here a couple of years ago next to five Vietnam nurses, and they’ve seen more death and dying in their hospital beds than we did in the jungles. When we get together for reunions, they get overcome with emotions thinking about those they couldn’t save.”

The Nov. 13 event — attended by a couple of hundred people, including several uniformed Navy nurses and members of the Navy Nurse Corps Association of Southern California — featured a somber commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a flyover with nine planes. The flyover also included a “missing man” formation that paid tribute to Bob Phillips, a Navy veteran and longtime trustee and event organizer with the Mount Soledad Memorial Association who died recently.

Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Neil O’Connell, president of the association, praised service members of the past and present and shared time at the microphone with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, a Navy veteran.

The Marine color guard presents the colors during the Pledge of Allegiance.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rear Adm. Cynthia Kuehner, commander of Naval Medical Forces Support Command and a senior Navy nurse, flew in from Texas for the event. Kuehner served with the 1st Force Service Support Group in Fallujah, Iraq, where she provided direct casualty care in a busy medical facility during the height of combat operations.

She told the crowd that nurses have been helping those wounded in battle since the late 1700s and will continue to be a force well into the future.

At the close of the ceremony, Baca helped guide his former nurse from a wheelchair into a van driven by Liakos’ caregiver. Baca said Liakos had been on a path to becoming an admiral but he was grateful she didn’t end up “behind a desk at the Pentagon.”

“She’s one of the angels that watched over us,” Baca said. “I won’t forget.”

Bill Kellogg plaque

A plaque honoring Bill Kellogg was dedicated by the Mount Soledad Memorial Association.
(Dave Ellrod / EllrodImages)

Before the ceremony, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association dedicated a plaque at the memorial in honor of William J. “Bill” Kellogg for his “four decades of exemplary leadership in the development and growth of this Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial.”

Kellogg, president of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club and a member of the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame, was chairman and chief executive of the Memorial Association from 1985 to 2012, according to his LinkedIn page.

Care packages for servicewomen

Women serving in the armed forces received care packages for Veterans Day, thanks to members of the La Jolla chapter of the National League of Young Men and other organizations.

“It was a huge success,” said Brenda Morrison, a member of the La Jolla chapter and the Mission Beach Women’s Club. “We packaged 235 boxes for the female soldiers serving overseas.”

Colin Kavanaugh, a sophomore at The Bishop's School, holds a box he helped pack with items for women in the armed forces.
Colin Kavanaugh, a sophomore at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, holds a box he helped pack with items for women in the armed forces for Veterans Day.
(Courtesy of Sharon Jones)

Colin Kavanaugh, a sophomore at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, and Cooper Smith, a freshman at La Jolla High School, were among those who boxed donated items at a Nov. 9 event at the Mission Beach Women’s Club Cottage.

La Jolla High freshman Cooper Smith and his mother, Adi, show boxes of personal items to be shipped to military servicewomen.
La Jolla High School freshman Cooper Smith and his mother, Adi, show two completed boxes of personal items ready to be shipped last week to military servicewomen.
(Courtesy of Sharon Jones)

Sponsoring organizations included the Mission Beach Town Council, Pacific Beach American Legion Auxiliary Unit 552 and The JEM Project.

Each box contained personal items such as shampoo, lotion and stationary, as well as a letter that concluded, “Together we are grateful for your service and sacrifice and wish you success in your mission.” ◆