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Honoring those who have served - and fallen

With our nation still at war in Iraq, Memorial Day takes on special significance.

La Jolla will honor those who’ve served - and fallen - with a special ceremony in the shadow of the 40-foot-high Mount Soledad cross from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday, May 28.

Ed Ward, first vice president of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, noted Memorial Day is “the perfect day for all of us to remember and honor the veterans that have been lost in the wars and conflicts of the United States. Memorial Day honors those who have fallen, those that have survived our wars and conflicts and, today, honors those who are still fighting for our freedom in lands far from the United States.”

The origin of the Memorial Day holiday and observance dates back to the Civil War when organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of that conflict. But it was not until May 5, 1868, when the day was first proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The national holiday was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By1890, it was recognized by all of the Northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I. It is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May.

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Having served in the military in Iraq was a life-changing experience for returned veterans Randy Hopp, Cameron Chen and Nathan Fletcher. The personal sacrifice honored by the national holiday is more palpable, more keenly felt by those who recently were in harm’s way. But the experience, for all three men, was as individual as it was personal.

“What the military prepared me for was a lot different than what I saw,” admitted Randy Hopp, a La Jolla Kiwanian and Rotarian and owner of Cold Stone Creamery in the Village. “I had this level of expectation that this would be a horrific experience, being shot at daily ... but it wasn’t like that at all. I had a positive experience. I’m glad I went. I grew as a person.”

Having served in Iraq, Hopp feels that experience has made him more respectful, more appreciative of the sacrifices of those who served previously.

Cameron Chen, a 1995 La Jolla grad, is recently returned from his second deployment in Iraq. Chen was with an IEG (Improvised Explosive Device) unit charged with disarming roadside bombs laid by insurgents. He noticed a lot of changes that occurred in the spirit and conduct of the war between his first and second tours of duty. “The first time I went over there, I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Chen. “Going over there definitely changes your perspective.”

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Chen said the Iraq war transformed from more of a classic confrontation, where two armed camps engage one another directly, to a mostly insurgent struggle with the planting of roadside bombs and random acts of violence seeking to disrupt communications and sew terror.

“The Iraqi military and police were taking a much more active role,” Chen said about the Iraq war’s denouement. “It was heartening, a good positive sign. They had been so disorganized before it was appalling. But now they were much more professional, organized and better equipped, taking a larger role in establishing control over large sections of the country.”

Chen went into the military because of a strong sense of duty and patriotism. “I felt privileged for the life I’d lived growing up in La Jolla,” he said. “I wanted to give something back.”

Iraq, for Chen, was an eye-opening experience. “After 9/11, I had a limited view of what Iraq and Afghanistan meant,” he said. “Now I see there’s a bigger picture. I’m very aware, after being over there, that we need to be involved in the rest of the world. We can’t just isolate ourselves: That’s not going to work.”

Another returned Iraq veteran, Nathan Fletcher, who served in 2004 in the Sunni triangle of Iraq at the western edge of Faluzza which saw heavy action, is now back in the States and campaigning for the state assembly seat being vactated by a termed-out George Plescia, who represents La Jolla in the state Legislature.

“It’s tough when you come back, and not a day goes by that you don’t think about the guys that are still there, and the guys that are never going to come back,” said Fletcher. “What Memorial Day means is a tribute: There is no greater sacrifice you can make than to give your life to your country. It’s a wonderful opportunity, every year, to really understand and appreciate the sacrifices that have been made, and to pay honor to them (veterans).”

Fletcher noted Memorial Day also should honor the sacrifices made by the families of the men and women who have been placed in harm’s way. “We (vets) get medals, get parades,” he said, “but I think it’s phenomenal what the families go through back here. I don’t know that they always get the recognition they deserve. I’d like to see us have a day that just honors the families. My deployment was so much easier with a loving and supporting family.”

While in Iraq, Hopp participated in 22 combat-related convoys as part of the Joint Combat Camera Information Management Team. “Our job was to collect all the information from combat cameras and people inside the theater,” said Hopp, “and forward that on to operations and the news.”

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After military operations were complete, Hopp and his team followed through by going back in and documenting and assessing the impact of what had happened.

Part of the responsibilities of Hopp and his team were to interact with Iraqis, which proved less troublesome than he’d anticipated. He related one circumstance where his unit, while in Kurdish northern Iraq, got a call reporting there was a large mass of locals headed their way. “We loaded our weapons and went to a different alert status,” said Hopp, “but it turned out they actually just wanted to greet us. They gave us fruit and flowers and were cheering us on.”

Much of Iraq is impoverished. That makes the country susceptible to radical influences. Said Cameron Chen: “It’s easy for people who are somewhat disenfranchised economically to be led into fanatical ideologies. They can be easily manipulated. They have to have hope that they can improve their lives. We can make a difference.

Ultimately, the solution is economic.”

Chen likened fighting the war in Iraq to battling cancer. “At some point, you may have to operate, cut it out,” Chen said. “But the real solution is a lifestyle change. In this case, a long-term economic solution.”

His military experience in Iraq has helped Chen to see the real, deeper meaning of Memorial Day. “It’s more meaningful now,” he said, “especially to me having lost classmates, friends and teammates in this war. It’s more relevant than ever. Growing up, Memorial Day was always something for my parents and grandparents who fought their wars. This is ours now. It’s definitely a moving day. You have to remember those guys who have paid that price, put it on the line, shared the same beliefs as you.”

Fletcher, a UTC resident, hopes, ultimately, that the war in Iraq can somehow be brought to a successful conclusion. “We need to honor the sacrifices that have been made,” he said, “by ensuring we find a way to win, make sure their (vets) sacrifice was for something productive and good. We need to ensure thattheir sacrifice was meaningful.”

Fletcher feels this is just the beginning of the worldwide - and likely generations-long - war against terror. “It’s an unfortunate reality that the world is the way it is,” he said. “But we have to summon the courage and the will to be able to confront terror. My hope is that, on Memorial Day, we can take a pause from the partisan bickering and truly have a national day to honor those that have served. For one day, take a step back and just honor the tremendous sacrifice of brave Americans who gave their lives for our country.”

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WHAT:

Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Day Ceremony

WHEN:

Monday, May 28 – 2 p.m. – 3:15 p.m.

WHERE:

Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial at the top of Mt. Soledad. From La Jolla Parkway West, left on Hidden Valley to Via Capri, then turn right and proceed up hill. Turn left into entrance of Soledad Natural Park, 6905 La Jolla Scenic Drive South.

PARKING & SHUTTLES:

Mt. Soledad Presbyterian Church, 6551 Soledad Mountain Road and French American School, 6550 Soledad Mountain Road. Attendee recommended arrival: 1:30 p.m. to allow time for shuttle service to site.

CEREMONY THEME:

“If You Love Freedom, Thank a Veteran and our Active Military.”

PLAQUE PRESENTATION:

President and Commander in Chief, Gerald R. Ford, Commemoration by Leon Parma, longtime friend of Ford. Members of the Ford family will be present.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER:

Rear Admiral Len Hering, USN, Commander, Navy Region Southwest.

ADDITIONAL PARTICIPANTS:

William J. Kellogg, President, Mt. Soledad Memorial Association; Richard Woltman, Mt. Soledad Memorial Association Trustee; Navy Band Southwest; LCDR Dale Yager, Director; Naval Medical Center San Diego Color Guard; Lt. Jeff Bornemann, Chaplain, USN; Bob White, 2006/2007 San Diego County Veteran of the Year; San Diego Salute T34 Fly Over Team; Soloist, Abrina Guaderrama, Poway High School Senior.

MORE INFORMATION:

Call (858) 459-2314 or visit www.soledadmemorial.com