After years of discussion surrounding the undetermined location of a veterans cemetery project in Irvine, the project itself, which has yet to break ground, is now facing pushback from Orange County-based veterans groups who say they are caught in a political crossfire between the differing opinions of the public and members Irvine’s City Council.  

In an interview with Irvine Weekly, Nick Berardino, a Vietnam veteran, and president of Veterans Alliance of Orange County (VALOR), said due to the ongoing division of interests among the Golf Course and ARDA sites, local veterans groups are now urging the Orange County Board of Supervisors to adopt a regional approach, and are asking Irvine to decline the opportunity to build a veterans cemetery within the city.  

Now, Berardino says that local veterans groups have been exploring the possibility of building the veterans cemetery on county-owned land just east of Anaheim Hills, near the 241 Toll Road in Gypsum Canyon.

“We’ve determined we’re caught in the middle of two groups who are committed and prepared to protect their interests,” Berardino explained. “We’re caught in a crossfire and we’ve decided from our military experience, when you’re caught in a crossfire, and your tanks are fogged down – you’re gonna get killed.”

In a press release, VALOR introduced a new direction in support for a veterans cemetery site near Anaheim Hills. Berardino added that local veterans groups he is involved with have been working to secure the 280 acre site near the 241 Toll Road – which now has the support of Third District Supervisors Don Wagner.

“This just seems like the right thing to do for our veterans,” Wagner said in the VALOR press release. “They sacrificed everything to protect our nation. We should be able to come together, figure this out, and build a regional cemetery in Orange County to honor their service.”

Despite the recent publication of the dual-site study released by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, which was conducted in order to determine the most cost-effective site for the veterans cemetery in Irvine, Berardino said it is clear that the cemetery project is in for a long-winded legal battle.

Specifically, Berardino theorizes that if the city of Irvine chooses the Golf Course Site, Irvine City Council Member Larry Agran, who is the council’s most outspoken supporter for building a veterans cemetery on the ARDA site, will file a lawsuit against the decision, further impacting the timeline of this project.

Agran himself has alluded to such actions. In a recent interview with Irvine Weekly, Agran described a “powerful legal response” in regards to ensuring the veterans cemetery is built on the ARDA site.

“I think the political response would be very powerful and very much opposed to trying to undo the will of the people. As a legal matter, there probably would be avenues pursued by the Build The Great Park Veterans Cemetery committee and others,” Agran said.

However, Berardino said local veterans are already working with the county Board of Supervisors in selecting a new site outside of Irvine.

“Irvine is not a suitable location. So, we have chosen a new direction. We’ve met with Don Wagner from the Board of Supervisors and talked to county staff, and two things have become clear to us,” he explained. “One is, Irvine is trying to put a square peg in a round hole, but two, this is a heavy lift and we need to have broad regional support. We need the kind of regional support that working with the Board of Supervisors will bring.”

Berardino, a Vietnam combat veteran, said he is ready to continue fighting for veterans in Orange County, adding that this new direction gives them hope. “We are not fearful, but we are hopeful that the politicians and others that have been participating in this political chess game will also see the important thing is not their egos, or their personal preferences – but veterans interests.”

Along with VALOR, the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation also has a heavy interest in the new Anaheim Hills location. Bill Cook, Chairman of the OCVMPF said he is responsible for the original selection of the ARDA site, but emphasized it was time for Irvine to decline the project.

“We went out and looked at the site, which is in Gypsum Canyon. The site is county park land, it was donated to the county by the Irvine Company,” Cook explained. “I have been favoring this for the better part of a year. I’ve completely turned away from Irvine. I’ve been sending emails to Irvine saying, ‘The way out of your dilemma is just say no — just decline the veterans cemetery – we’re no longer interested and we don’t think it fits our community.'”

Vietnam veteran and current Irvine resident Robert “Bob” Brower, was who was awarded two Bronze Stars and Two Purple Heart medals during his time as an Army Sergeant and member of the 506th regiment of the 101st airborne division, said he has built professional relationships at the federal level that have given him unique insight to the veterans cemetery discussions.

Thanks to Brower’s work on the National Legislative Council on behalf of the American Legion, he remains confident that regardless of Argan’s expected legal response in the selection of the Golf Course site, the bottom line is that the National Cemetery Administration will have the final say on location, design and funding of a veterans cemetery – not just in Irvine, but nationwide.

“I was in Washington, and I met with the director of the State and Tribal Cemetery program and have talked subsequently with the associate director, who is responsible for California – before the state can start working on this, they have to submit and have approved by the National Cemetery Administration, working drawings for a particular site that would be eligible to receive a federal grant, which would be in phases, maximum $10 million per-phase of construction, into probably tens of years,” Brower explained. “Under that particular program, there’s language in there the city can’t build these types of cemeteries, it has to be built by the state – that’s why it’s called State and Tribal Cemeteries Program.”

Regardless of what site is chosen, Brower estimates that if he and his comrades – Berardino, Cook and many others – can convince the Board of Supervisors to support the Anaheim Hills site, it will be at least three years before the project will break ground. Brower admits he thinks that will be the quickest route to giving Orange County veterans a proper resting place.

“If SB-43 (Veterans Cemetery: County of Orange) becomes law, and stays law in this session of the Legislature, you would have to come back and do new legislation in the next year to change that – so that’s a year delay. Then have CalVet do another study, that would take probably another year,” he said during a phone call with Irvine Weekly. “Probably a year and a half out for it to go to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a pre-application to have them evaluate that. Depending upon how much funding is put together at the state – you’re pushing this down the road probably two or three years.”