San Diego gets new VA cemetery

As a combat medic in Vietnam with the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1968 and 1969, John A. Smith III risked his life repeatedly to rescue wounded comrades. He was wounded three times and awarded the Bronze Star for valor.

After years of surgeries and rehabilitation, Smith moved from New York to San Diego in 1982 and took a job with the U.S. Post Office. He rarely talked of his combat experiences, but he routinely visited veterans in local hospitals, served as the announcer at the Veterans Day parade and volunteered at the California Veterans Home in Chula Vista.

In the 1980s, he was among the early organizers of the three-day Stand Down in San Diego to provide help for homeless and struggling veterans. It has grown into an annual event and inspired similar activities nationwide.

But of all his efforts on behalf of veterans, none may have meant more to Smith than the years he spent lobbying in Washington, trying to convince officials that San Diego, home to one of the country’s largest military communities, deserved a second national cemetery.

In January 2010, just days before groundbreaking at Miramar National Cemetery, Smith died of a heart attack at the age of 62.


On Thursday, he was given the honor of the first casket burial at the new cemetery.

“I just loved the guy: He was a true American hero,” said Joe Ciokon, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and was severely wounded in the 1983 terrorist attack on Marine barracks in Lebanon.

With the opening of the Miramar cemetery, there is now a second national cemetery in Southern California that permits casket burials for all veterans.

As veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War march toward mortality, the new cemetery next to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is preparing to satisfy a pent-up demand for casket burials.

Miramar staffers are prepared for burials every 30 minutes during daylight hours Monday through Friday.

The number of interments each year at VA cemeteries nationwide has increased 200% since 1973 -- and is expected to continue to rise. The VA is shopping for land for new cemeteries in New York, Nebraska, Florida and Colorado.

Because of space limitations, Los Angeles National Cemetery and Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, both of which date from the late 19th century, can accommodate casket burials only for military personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Casket burials are also permitted for veterans or eligible family members in an existing gravesite.

Among the three established national cemeteries in Southern California, only Riverside National Cemetery, which opened in 1978, offers space for casket burials for all veterans.

As a result, Riverside has been the busiest of the 131 national cemeteries run by the Department of Veterans Affairs for more than a decade. Last year, the cemetery had 8,500 casket burials and inurnments.

Some families with loved ones at the Riverside cemetery have already inquired about having their veterans re-interred at Miramar, closer to the Navy and Marine Corps bases where they served.

The 338-acre Miramar cemetery is still a work in progress.

The statue honoring prisoners of war, slated for a place of honor near the cemetery gate, has yet to be placed. The administration building is unfinished. Large patches that will accommodate graves are still not landscaped.

But officials said the demand for burial space is so strong that they decided to open the cemetery as soon as the first of six phases was ready.

Phase 1, at a cost of $27 million, will have 11,500 gravesites, 4,500 in-ground cremation sites and 10,000 columbarium niches for urns. Burial at cremation sites began in November, but the columbarium is still under construction.

“My current home is seven miles from here,” one Army veteran said at a recent preview. “This will be my new home.”

Navy SEAL Michael Monsoor, a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor for bravery in Iraq, is buried at Rosecrans. A street at the Miramar cemetery, intersecting the Avenue of Flags, is named in his honor.

Other streets are named for Army Maj. Mason Carter, who fought in the Indian Wars in the late 1800s and received the Medal of Honor; Marine Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, a key figure in shaping the modern Marine Corps; and Marine Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, a World War II commander considered the father of amphibious warfare. All are buried at Ft. Rosecrans.

The Ft. Rosecrans cemetery, nestled on an east-facing hill on Point Loma, provides a panoramic view of San Diego Bay, with Navy ships deploying and returning.

The Miramar cemetery, just east of Interstate 805, is a mile from the runway at the Marine air station.

On Thursday, at a brief service at an outdoor Commital Service Shelter, the eulogy for Smith was provided by a longtime friend, Ronald Ritter, a retired Navy commander and chaplain now living in Hemet.

“God knows, God knows, that he left his mark on this community in terms of veterans’ affairs,” Ritter said of his friend.

Among those in attendance was retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Cardenas, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and, in retirement, was a major force in winning approval for the new cemetery.

There were days, even years, when he thought the cemetery would never overcome myriad environmental, political and budgetary hurdles, Cardenas said. He is grateful for the outcome.

“It’s almost like that day 62 years ago when I married my bride,” the 91-year-old Cardenas told reporters. “I’m elated.”

As a member of an Army honor guard presented the American flag that had adorned her husband’s casket to Lenora Smith, a pair of F/A-18 Hornets roared overhead.

Smith is also survived by his son Keith, 32, a teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., and daughter Kimberly, 23, a student at San Diego State.

Friends walked slowly away, many sharing stories of John Smith.

Some remembered Smith’s work on behalf of the Martin Luther King Parade and the Catfish Club, the city’s leading African American civic group. Many remembered him as a “veterans’ veteran.”

“Goodbye, John,” Ritter said softly as the casket was loaded onto the horse-drawn hearse for the short ride to a waiting grave.