"Freedom isn't free," says Nick Berardino, Orange County Fair Board member and recently retired labor leader.
As a Marine, he fought in Vietnam and says, "I, like most Vietnam vets, carry this very strange guilt."
To this day he sees the faces and remembers the laughter of combat buddies who died in combat there.
So it's no wonder Berardino's passionate about bringing Heroes Hall — a museum planned for the OC Fairgrounds — that will honor this county's veterans — to fruition.
As president of the Heroes Hall Foundation, Berardino says creating this museum is a way to honor those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country, not only in Vietnam, but in all wars.
"This is a way they will never be forgotten," he told me.
Berardino has some strong opinions about how veterans have been treated with regards to a memorial or a museum.
"Anytime there is valuable space in this county, the veterans lose," he says.
He points to the Tustin Marine Helicopter Base, where there was talk of using the property for this purpose until "developers swooped in" and plans were scrapped.
And then there's the controversy of creating a military cemetery at the Great Park in Irvine, which many in that community are against.
Thanks to the OC Fair board's decision in June to take the Memorial Gardens building, relocate it on the fairgrounds and create Heroes Hall, veterans will finally get the recognition they deserve, he says.
Berardino praises his fellow Fair Board members, saying they've "broken the negative trend in turning vets down" in that they are willing to supply the property, building and $1 million dollars to make this project a reality. (Full disclosure: My husband serves on the Fair Board.)
"We have a group of public officials who have stepped up," he says.
The goal of this museum is to educate children.
The plan is to have a 100,000 school kids visit the exhibit annually to learn about the high price paid for freedom.
The exhibits will be interactive and change regularly Berardino, tells me.
The Heroes Hall foundation is a nonprofit organization, much like that of Centennial Farms at the fairgrounds.
"The museum will belong to the fairgrounds; they'll staff it and maintain it," says Berardino.
The OC Fair Board acts the board of directors for Heroes Hall and has already started to appoint folks to the foundation, he explained.
One of those appointed in June is political consultant Carina Franck-Pantone.
She tells me as a mother of two boys she's "honored to be a part of building this educational legacy for future generations."
"Visionary veterans like Nick Berardino understand that one of the greatest lessons to teach our children about commitment and sacrifice in life can be told through the stories of our veterans," she said.
The foundation will raise money for special exhibits and be a fundraising force for the museum.
Berardino says the community has embraced the concept with donations coming in from Disney and the Orange County Register, as well as others.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers donated $20,000. The city of Costa Mesa, County of Orange and the Orange County Employees Assn. — the union Berardino ran until recently — have each kicked in $25,000.
Fundraising has also brought Democrats and Republicans together for a common cause, as was evident when I attended the fundraiser Republican Shawn Steele and his wife, O.C. Supervisor Michelle Steel, hosted this summer at the OC Fair. They raised about $35,000 that night.
And the buzz continues for the museum.
On Aug. 27 at the 24th annual OC Black Chamber of Commerce dinner at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, the Fair Board was honored for its efforts in bringing Heroes Hall to life. Board Chairwoman Ashleigh Aitken gave a rousing speech as board members, Berardino, Barbara Bagneris, Sandra Cervantes and my husband, Stan Tkaczyk, looked on.
With all the attention Heroes Hall is getting, Berardino says it is community involvement that will make it a success.
"Right now we are developing advisory committees, looking for volunteers to be docents, and anyone willing to contribute anything," he says.
I told him I'd be happy to serve on a committee.
The foundation is looking for military artifacts and veterans to share stories.
They also need those with technical expertise as the "museum will be telling the story through the hearts and minds of vets," says Berardino.
Anyone interested should contact HeroesHall@ocfair.com.
*Help the 1/1 Marines
Speaking of veterans, I'd like to give a plug to the 2015 Newport 1/1 Marine Foundation Golf Tournament Sept. 14 at Camp Pendleton. Play a round with Marine supporters and active duty Marines from 1st Battalion. Contact organizer Jerry Strom (949) 887-4644, firstname.lastname@example.org.