Thousands salute veterans

They came in droves Monday to the Orange County Fairgrounds, many proudly wearing white stickers that read, "I'm a veteran."

The free Veterans Day event, part of a union-led effort called Veterans + Labor: Partners in Service, brought together Southern California veterans young and old, active-duty service members, veterans' support groups and families to celebrate the holiday.

Officials called it the largest Veterans Day event in recent memory. An estimated 3,000 people came to hear the live music, speak to veterans, visit the information booths, learn about American military history and enjoy free hot dogs.

Organizers included the Orange County Employees Assn. and California Labor Federation.

As part of the festivities, 70 motorcyclists rolled in together from a ride that started at the Orange County Labor Federation headquarters in Orange. Also featured was the West Coast unveiling of a new U.S. Postal Service stamp depicting the Medal of Honor.

"So often people forget freedom's not free," said Nick Berardino, OCEA's general manager and a Marine veteran. "It's not free. And suffering that vets go through every single day is something that's to be honored, something to be remembered."

Berardino told attendees of his plans to help put a veterans museum at the fairgrounds. It might include the Memorial Gardens Building, a World War II-era barracks that was recently saved from the bulldozer and moved to a temporary location within the fairgrounds parking lot.

Pastor Frank Orzio, a Marine who served during Vietnam, gave an invocation. Adorned in his Marine Corps dress blues, he urged a return to traditional values.

"We need to put the flag back on the porch again and invite God back to the dinner table, be a family once again," Orzio said.

Costa Mesa Historical Society President Bob Palazzola and others were also on hand, showing off photographs and other information about the former Santa Ana Army Air Base. The World War II base once took up a sizable chunk of modern-day Costa Mesa, including the 150-acre fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Vanguard University and City Hall.

The event also included a letter-writing station, where youngsters crafted cards that would be sent to service members throughout the world.

Representatives from the nonprofit American Wheelchair Mission were manning an information booth. Next to them were wheelchairs available to those in need.

Military members who get injured during their service can get help from the government, "but a guy who was injured afterward, he has nobody to go to, so we try and cover that open hole," said Philip Wilmot, an Army veteran and leader of the project.

The Noble Cause Foundation, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit that seeks to "preserve the legacy of the Greatest Generation," also contributed to the event. With swing music sounding, founder Cornell Iliescu and others took to the dance floor to entertain the crowd.

Corona resident Mike Wilgus, an Air Force veteran who served after the Vietnam War from 1975 to 1979, told attendees about the 82nd Airborne Division Army paratroopers of World War II.

Dressed in full period garb — a true "Band of Brothers" uniform — he told passersby about the weapons, equipment and activities of the 82nd, which was part of the massive D-Day invasion force.

"These guys were amazing," Wilgus said. "I've talked to a bunch of 82nd Airborne vets that actually made all the combat jumps. To have them tell you what it was like is just amazing. We just try to make sure they're never forgotten."

Wilgus said he didn't see combat himself while in the service but likes to "do this for the guys who were actually out there and put their lives on the line."

"I love to see all the people out here," he said of Monday's event, "giving all the vets the honor they deserve."

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