Memorial Day, a time to honor those who have fallen in our nation’s defense, is fast approaching. It’s a time for La Jolla veterans to reflect on the meaning of military service, the price of freedom, the war against terrorism and the fate of a historic cross, which sits in the center of the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial.
The meaning of Memorial Day is crystal clear to John Smith, a Vietnam War Army combat medic who was seriously wounded in battle.
“A lot of us walk around with medals,” Smith said, “but the true heroes are the ones in the national cemeteries and on the Vietnam Wall. It’s a day to remember the real heroes.”
Having ministered to the wounded and dying, Memorial Day has extraordinary - even haunting - significance for Smith.
“I don’t know how many people I was able to save,” he said. “I can’t remember hardly any of them. But, I have a vivid memory of every single person I was not able to save on the battlefield.”
Smith was only 18 years old with 10 weeks of medical training before he became a medic in a combat situation.
“The other soldiers call you Doc,” he recalled. “I was Doc Smitty. They think you’re a doctor and you think you can perform these miracles, and you can’t.”
The Mount Soledad Memorial Association trustee is also a special representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs for San Diego County. Smith grew up in Harlem in New York City during the turbulent 1960s. He said his military experience not only altered his life, it transformed it.
“My youth was spent in the militant end of the Civil Rights movement,” he said, “and there were some very negative views of white people. But, I found there was no way to survive combat without developing some relationships. In the military, you really have to operate as a team. You need to come together.”
Most of the people Smith knew from his old neighborhood who did not join the military are either dead, in jail on drugs or have AIDS.
“If I had not had that experience and stayed in Harlem ... the military damn near killed me, but it also saved my life. I’m really appreciative of the experience I got in the military, because it forced me to see things in a different way.”
U.S. Army Capt. James Hewette Jr. agrees with Smith on the special significance of Memorial Day.
“It’s a special time to honor all those who have defended the country,” he said, “particularly those who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
The military service of Hewette and his father, a lieutenant colonel who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, are enshrined on plaques on Mount Soledad’s memorial walls.
“My dad jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Unit and he was wounded in an amphibious assault on Tarawa in the South Pacific,” said Hewette. “He had a lot of bullets flying around him in both World War II and Korea.”
This Memorial Day, Hewette is thankful for a general improvement in the public’s attitude toward veterans since the time he served.
“The public’s perception is getting more positive,” he said. “After Vietnam, unfortunately, the public’s attitude wasn’t really appreciative of the veterans’ sacrifices. Gradually, that’s being overcome and people are starting to realize the importance of their contribution to the defense of the country.”
It’s difficult for historian Robert Farrar, a La Jolla resident since 1948, to forget his military experience.
“In World War II, I was a field artillery officer and I lost my hearing because of it,” he said. “I’m completely deaf in my right ear, and now have only about 50 percent hearing in my left ear due to good audiology.”
A graduate of Stanford University, Farrar co-wrote a book, “Fire Mission:109,” chronicling the history of the school’s Class of 1944 Officer Candidate Class 109, and the experiences of its members in World War II.
The Iraq War and the war on terrorism are foremost in Farrar’s mind presently.
“These insurgents are die-hard and they’ve got to be wiped out whether they’re in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of those Arab countries,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question they would like to obliterate all of us if they could.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Earl Van Inwegen, a Bird Rock resident, La Jolla Town Council trustee and Air Force veteran who was in Vietnam, believes military service deepens one’s patriotic convictions.
“You have a stronger sense of dedication to your country,” he said.
The public’s perception of veterans has generally improved over time, said Van Inwegen, though it waivers withthe particulars of each given military situation.
“I think there’s a lot of support for the troops themselves,” he said, “but not as much support for the administration that’s responsible for sending them over there.”
Van Inwegen blames negative media coverage for distorting the public’s view of what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The story that came out in the last Newsweek about the Quran thing, that was a travesty,” he said. “The public media can cause havoc. It’s so shameful that had to happen.”
The Mount Soledad cross is another issue weighing heavily on Van Inwegen’s mind these days.
“It’s a memorial to veterans,” he said, “whether there’s a cross up there or a Star of David or a flag. We (the Mount Soledad Veterans Association) want to save the cross and we thought we had done that. But now this congressional legislation has kind of opened Pandora’s Box. The key problem now with the National Park Service is we have no written agreement that guarantees what we need to continue to maintain the memorial and save the cross, whether it be there or somewhere else.”
Pride comes to mind for La Jolla veteran John Michaelson, who served in the Navy during Vietnam, when reflecting on his military career.
“I am proud to have served my country,” he said. “It had a very significant and profound influence on my life at the time and has had a very signficant impact on my life ever since.”
Michaelsen said being in the service in Vietnam was a great deal of responsibility at a young age.
“Being responsible for a number of sailors’ well-being,” he said, “I think kind of set the tone for the rest of my life.”
Michaelsen agrees veterans are much more highly regarded now than they were during his days of active service.
“My peception is veterans are very well treated today,” he said, “regardless of what the individual’s attitude may be to our foreign policy. There is a very definite respect for today’s veteran. That’s a big change from what it was during the Vietnam era.”
Concerning the Iraq War, Michaelsen is supportive but wary. “The cost seems to be higher than anybody expected in terms of human lives, not necessarily money. I think it’s a big project we’ve got to finish.”
La Jollan Delbert Gambill, a Korean War veteran who served in the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Navy, enjoyed the camaraderie serving in the military.
“You have some very close friends,” he said.
Gambill, however, disagrees with some of his colleagues who feel veterans are getting the recognition they deserve.
“Veterans are sort of left out, compared to what they were in World War II,” he said. “Nowadays, they’re really not well enough received and appreciated.”
That’s deja vu for Gambill.
“At that time, we all felt that we were expendable. Having the soldiers over there now, the public seems to feel the same way, that they’re expendable.”
Gambill is pleased by Congressmen Hunter and Cunningham’s alternative proposed solution to save the cross by giving the land to the federal Parks Service.
“It’s just too expensive for the Mount Soledad Memorial Association to try and maintain and keep it up to date,” he said. “Federal Parks could do a wonderful job with it, and they would leave the administration of it up to our association.”
Regarding the Iraq War, Gambill called it an ugly war. “I would hate to be part of it. I think that it’s needed, though. The world is in a chaotic situation and we can make a big difference if we can just hang on a little longer.”
Former combat medic Smith said this year’s observance of Memorial Day is especially poignant given our armed involvement in the Iraq War.
“Americans are dying in a shooting war,” he said. “I was just in a ceremony where Lt. Gov. Bustamante pointed out 451 Californians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Smith said that armed conflict is probably the worst way to settle an argument.
“But, there are some things worth fighting for,” he said. “Freedom is one of them. I think we’re doing a good job over there, and the people I’m talking to coming back from over there are telling me morale is way up.”
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day remembers those who’ve died in the nation’s service. There are many stories as to the federal holiday’s actual beginnings. What is known about its earliest days is that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the Civil War ended.
More than two dozen cities and towns lay claim to being the actual birthplace of Memorial Day. Most likely, the holiday had many separate beginnings, with each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860s culminating finally, on May 5, 1868, with an official proclamation by Gen. John Logan declaring May 30 to be a day of official observance, with flowers to be placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
This year’s Mount Soledad Memorial Association’s Memorial Day ceremony will be held at the mountaintop memorial from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Monday, May 30. Arrive at 1:30 p.m. to allow to time to shuttle from nearby parking lots. The keynote speaker will be Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik. Highlights include dedication of plaques to Cpl. Jared Hubbard and Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Baro, who grew up together, joined the Marines together and were killed together in Iraq.
Ceremonies feature the Marine Band of San Diego and the Marine Corps Color guard, as well as a bell ringing and a moment of silence in honor of San Diego servicemembers whose lives have been lost this past year. For more information, visit www.soledadmemorial.com.