California legislation to create a veterans cemetery in Orange County is intended to solve a pressing need: A resting place in Southern California close to where the families of deceased veterans live.
The only national veterans cemetery in Los Angeles closed long ago to new burials, and there is no vets cemetery in Orange County. So, many people, like Santa Ana resident Apple Jacobs, turn to the Riverside National Cemetery – miles away – to bury their loved ones.
Recently, Jacobs got in her car for a 45-mile drive to the Riverside National Cemetery. It's about an hour's drive.
But she wishes her husband Bob's resting place was in a veterans cemetery closer to home.
"If he was in Orange County I would be there all the time, it would be closer and more convenient for me," said Jacobs. "And I would visit not just for special occasions too. Not dealing with driving so far and the traffic would be nice."
Her husband of 25 years, Bob Jacobs, a Vietnam veteran, died in October 2012 at 67 of liver cancer. She’s been driving to see him in Riverside ever since. Like many military veterans, it was his wish to be buried in a vets cemetery. But there isn't one in Orange County. And, in Los Angeles County, the national cemetery in Westwood has been closed for two decades.
Jacobs said if her husband, who was awarded a Bronze Star, were buried closer, she and her two sons, Ryan, 22 and Kevin, 19, would visit more often.
"I come here and visit and try to visit as much as I can with my boys, usually during special occasions or I make special trips with my boys [who do the driving] because it's kind of a long drive," said Jacobs.
After the drive east on the 91 freeway, Jacobs arrived at the Riverside National Cemetery. It's an unusually hot and windy day. She started her visit by wiping off her husband's gravestone with a damp cloth.
Next, she placed a dozen roses – six red, six white, on each side at the top of the grave marker, in two holders provided by the cemetery and stuck a small American flag in the grass between the flowers. And then, she placed a single long stem red rose diagonally across her husband's gravestone.
Her husband, a former engineer, liked to do crossword puzzles, so she lays out several crossword books below the grave marker too.
"He's here and we always try to come visit him," said Jacobs. "But it would be wonderful if we had one [veterans cemetery] closer."
The California Department of Veterans Affairs said there are 133,000 veterans living in Orange County. Many of those veterans hope that in the future their loved ones won't have to drive so far.
State legislation to create veterans cemetery in Orange County
And, they might not face such a long drive if legislation proposed by Orange County Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva is successful. Quirk-Silva, Chair of the California Assembly Committee of Veterans Affairs, has introduced legislation to create a veterans cemetery in Orange County.
The bill would direct the California Department of Veterans Affairs to construct a state-owned and operated veterans cemetery, in cooperation with the Orange County Board of Supervisors and city councils of other participating cities in the county.
"In the bill there would be a budget appropriation for design and the initial start-up but it would put us in line to apply for a federal grant, which in fact we would need for the full funding," said Quirk-Silva.
The state agency would take the lead in the project, overseeing the coordination, design, development and construction. The CalVet Department currently operates two veterans cemeteries and a third one is expected to begin construction in November 2014.
State Veterans Cemeteries are intended to serve areas that are not adequately served by a National Cemetery. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides grant funding for "establishing, expanding or improving Veterans cemeteries that are owned and operated by a state, federally recognized tribal government, or U.S. territory."
Quirk-Silva's bill doesn’t specify a location in Orange County, but there's a section of the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, now the Great Park, that veterans groups have been pursuing for more than a decade.
Developer FivePoint Communities plans to build homes near the desired location and is concerned a cemetery could derail plans to sell the homes to adherents of Feng Shui.
Still, Quirk-Silva said the Great Park is a perfect location.
"Well, I certainly think it is," she said. "And I think many people in Orange County do believe that it not only would be a great tribute to our veterans but it's the right location."
Quirk-Silva said there is no opposition to the bill (AB 1453) and Governor Brown told her he’d sign it.
In Orange County, the Irvine City Council has indicated it supports a vets cemetery in the Great Park.
Vietnam vet hopes OC cemetery is reality before his 'expiration date'
Bill Cook, Chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park & Cemetery Committee, has worked to get a vets cemetery at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station since it was closed 15 years ago.
"When this base closed in 1999, there were 4,682 acres of this base," said Cook, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1964-68. "Right now we're down to talking about 125 acres, it's all that's left for veterans. And we hope to get that."
We talk facing south, with a view of the Great Park that is not far from where Cook, now 67, boarded a plane for Vietnam.
"What makes this place so special to us and the heritage here is that somewhere out there is the last piece of the United States some American boys ever stood on," said Cook. That's where we flew out from."
Cook said it should not be hard to work out a way to make the 125 acre location near the planned home development work for everyone.
"The cultural issue (Feng Shui) seems to be that many of the potential homeowners don't want to see the cemetery from their home and they don't want to pass the cemetery entrance coming and going from their home," said Cook. "In all of the land that we have in the Great Park, we could certainly come up with that measure of accommodation and still have a veterans cemetery that is completely compatible with both communities' desires."
But Cook said there is another location, on the western side of the Great Park, that would work for a veterans cemetery too.
"A little bit of reshuffling of what goes on [Great Park plans] and the cemetery goes in by the railroad tracks and the other industrial areas along the I-5 freeway," said Cook. "You know, the dead won't be disturbed, and we'll still have an honored place."
Cook was a Marine sergeant in Vietnam from 1967-68. His personalized car license plate reads 'TET VET.'
He's called Orange County home since 1968 and said his ideal resting place would be in a veterans cemetery on the former military base.
"Love it here, want to stay here," he laughed, then added "I do hope the veterans cemetery happens here before my expiration date."
Cook, an American Legion Chaplain, said if Quirk-Silva's legislation is successful, it would be at least a three year process before the first burial ceremony would be held at a new veterans cemetery in Orange County.
He said with an estimated 14,000 veterans dying each year in Orange and L.A. counties, the closest burial option in a vets cemetery is in Riverside.
Back at the Riverside National Cemetery, Apple Jacobs is talking quietly to her husband. As she gets ready to leave for the drive back to Santa Ana, Jacobs said if a veterans cemetery were established in Orange County, she’d consider relocating her husband Bob there.
“Oh that would be wonderful you know, so if something came up we might be thinking about that possibility. We would love him to be closer to us … of course," Jacobs said.
But in the meantime, she’ll continue her two-hour roundtrip drive from Santa Ana to the Riverside National Cemetery.
And Orange County veterans, like Bill Cook, continue to hope they will, one day, have a resting place closer to home.