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Large crowd assembles for Dana Point VFW’s annual Memorial Day ceremony at Pines Park

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Story and photos by Andrea Swayne

Hundreds gathered Monday as the Dana Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9934 and Ladies Auxiliary hosted their annual Memorial Day event—a solemn yet celebratory occasion—at Pines Park, atop the Palisades bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Cmdr. Bill Manes, U.S. Navy retired commander, VFW Post 9934 and commander of VFW California District 2, served as master of ceremonies, leading the program which included speakers, music, a gun salute and ceremonial roll call in celebration of our freedom and in remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price for it.

The presentation of colors was done by members of Marine Aircraft Group 39 from Camp Pendleton.

The keynote speaker was Lt. Col. Gabriel L. Valdez, commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Training Squadron-164 (HMMT-164), Marine Aircraft Group 39 of Camp Pendleton. He talked about losses from the Marine Corps aviation ranks, to offer an illustration of what Memorial Day means to him personally.

“When asked to speak at today’s event, I pondered as to what exactly I could offer this crowd and I must confess I am honored to be here breathing the same oxygen as some of the true American heroes who are sitting in the audience,” Valdez said. “… If you’ve followed the news and social media recently, you know that over the past month we’ve suffered heartbreaking losses in our Marine Corps Aviation family in Southern California.”

Valdez spoke of those lost in 1975 during Operation Frequent Wind, the final evacuation of American civilians and at-risk Vietnamese from Saigon prior to the takeover of the city by North Vietnam during the last days of the Vietnam War. He also spoke of HMLA-469—the squadron known by the nickname “Vengeance” and assigned to his group—and how they had been deployed in Japan for six months just prior to the earthquake in Nepal. Their helicopter went down on May 12 killing six Camp Pendleton-based Marines, while providing support to affected communities in the mountains of Nepal. He also spoke of two Marines killed last week when their Osprey crashed while training in Hawaii.

“… Every loss is gut-wrenching,” Valdez said. “We may come from different units and have different missions but we are all from the same family, and it is heartbreaking to lose family. We will never forget them. Whether a combat loss, such as the crew lost in Vietnam, or an unfortunate loss while conducting humanitarian operations or during a training evolution, each time we lose a brother or sister Marine, Sailor, Soldier or Airman, our pain is miniscule when compared to the pain, grief and loss felt by their families.

“But out of pain comes a new hope and a resolve for those that follow—to honor the memory of those who served, who we served with—by continuing to pursue our hazardous profession of arms and continue to train to be the very best at what we do, and to be ready to answer the call when the sounds of chaos are mounting. Ladies and gentlemen, there is no shortage of chaos in this world. We will never forget. I appreciate each and every one of you who has taken time to be here today. Sometimes I think our country has lost focus on what this weekend is about. You all know that’s it’s not about getting an awesome deal at the local car dealership or zero percent financing on a new bedroom set. This weekend is about honoring those who have died while serving in our beloved country’s armed forces.”

Valdez then quoted Gen. George S. Patton: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived…”

The morning also included special recognition for veterans of the Korean War, with a speech by Korean War veteran retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Thomas M. Vetter.

Other speakers included, Col. Tyler Guy, U.S. Air Force chaplain and senior pastor at South Shores Church in Dana Point; William Brough, (Dana Point) California state assemblyman, District 73; Mayor Carlos Olvera; and VFW Post 9934 Commander Maurice Hansen.

Veterans of wars, back to World War II, were asked to stand in groups to be honored.

The names of four of the six HMLA-469 members who died in Nepal following the earthquake were read in the ceremonial roll call—Sgt. Eric M. Seaman, Capt. Dustin R. Lukasiewicz, Sgt. Ward M. Johnson and Capt. Christopher L. Norgren, along with Lance Cpl. Sean P. Neal who died on Oct. 23, 2014 in Baghdad, Iraq while serving during Operation Inherent Resolve.

During the roll call, names of these fallen Marines were called three times, and each time the response, “No answer,” was shouted by a VFW member from the back of the audience and a bell was rung. A Marine from Camp Pendleton then placed dog tags on a helmet for each of the fallen and flowers were placed by VFW Women’s Auxiliary members. Although traditionally only a few names are read, the ceremony is performed in memory of all that were lost.

As the program ended, the crowd was mesmerized as a “fly by” of about 30 pelicans passed over as if on cue, adding a measure of awe to hearts filled with both the pain of loss and the pride of patriotism.

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