Honoring our heroes

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

Today is an historic day for Orange County veterans – a day when we will finally get to stand together and ensure the sacrifices, the courage and traditions of our county’s service men and women will be remembered for generations to come.

Today, we dedicate the Heroes Hall museum at the Orange County Fair and Event Center.

I had the opportunity last week to walk through the empty halls of the space, my mind drifting to a different time, when this newly remodeled building served as a barracks for young soldiers preparing to defend our freedom.

Tens of thousands of young men and women trained at the Santa Ana Air Base and comprised the pilots, bombardiers, navigators and ground personnel who would proudly serve our country across the globe during World War II.

Many of them would have walked on the same wood floor where I walked. Slept in beds lined up in opposing rows. What thoughts must have gone through the minds of these young soldiers, most barely out of high school, about to embark on a journey from which some of them would never return, a journey that would last a lifetime for those who did.

As I wandered through what has long been known as the Memorial Gardens building, named for its longtime former location at the Fairgrounds, I thought about one of my mentors, Nick Berardino, who fought for his country in the mountains and jungles of Vietnam. He saw many of his Marine Corps brothers make the ultimate sacrifice day in and day out, some blown literally to bits right beside him. On the battlefield he made a silent promise to each of them that if he survived the war he would do everything within his power to ensure they would never be forgotten and that he would fight for a country worthy of their sacrifices.

Every Veterans Day since his return from war Nick has participated in some act of remembrance, whether it was placing flags on graves at a veterans cemetery, performing some community service for a veteran or veterans group, or organizing a tribute to veterans. It was his idea to put together what has become the annual Veterans+Labor – Partners in Service event at the Orange County Fair & Event Center, where thousands of workers and community members come together each year on Veteran’s Day to celebrate our freedom, provide for veterans in need and to express our community’s gratitude for their sacrifices.

Yet for decades Nick was constantly frustrated as veterans approached politicians about constructing a museum here in Orange County to honor those who served. Over and over veterans would be told what a great idea it was, how much people wanted to help, how dedicated everyone was to veterans’ causes. But nothing ever happened.

Finally, when Nick was appointed to the Fair Board by Governor Brown, he saw an opportunity. The Memorial Gardens building was slated for demolition to make way for a new entrance to the Pacific Amphitheater. So Nick rallied all those veterans who had been promised a museum for all those years, called on community groups like the Costa Mesa Historical Society, and leaders like Supervisor and fellow Marine Shawn Nelson. He spoke with each of his amazing colleagues on the Fair Board and anyone else that was in earshot. An effort to preserve the building was launched.

Once the building was saved, the real “Devil Dog” in Nick came out as he campaigned to convert the building into Orange County’s Veterans Museum.

As I stood last week in this historic space, I was deluged by emotions of happiness, grief, appreciation, wonder, helplessness, hopefulness and so much more.

In one corner, I saw a cluster of original floorboards that had nail after nail after nail driven into them, far more than anywhere else in the space. My thoughts drifted to visions of a group of young soldiers from World War II, and how they might have pounded those nails to flatten the board, or to make good on a bet, or just because they could.

And I thought about Nick Berardino’s promise to his Marine Corps brothers back in 1970, and how Heroes Hall makes good on that promise, helps make it square that he survived. And those nails? Thanks to Nick, they’ll be in that floor for generations.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have people like Nick in my life. People who stand up for what they believe, make good on their promises, refuse to back down in the face of adversity, care about other human beings, and never forget the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us.

Heroes Hall provided me with a great opportunity for personal reflection, and that same opportunity will be available to hundreds of thousands of future visitors.

On this Veterans Day weekend, thank you to each and every veteran who has served our country. And thank you to each and every worker, leader and community ally who has worked to ensure that history and those memories will never be forgotten.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: November 11, 2016