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Veterans cemetery at the Great Park?

Irvine council has agreed to form a committee to explore the idea as ex-military members see relevance in the site's former use as a Marine Corps air station.

April 18, 2014|By Jill Cowan | This post has been corrected, as noted below.
  • Bill Cook, chaplain of American Legion District 29 and community chairman for Orange County Veterans Memorial Park (OCVMP), shows reporters the area they hope to get permission to put a State Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery at Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
Bill Cook, chaplain of American Legion District 29 and… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

When American Legion Chaplain Bill Cook peered through the chainlink fence at the windswept landscape — stripes of concrete marking a scrubby field framed by dark green foothills in the distance — he remembered the Phantoms.

The fighter jets were once a regular sight, slicing the air over what was for decades a bustling military base, a place local servicemen and women have seen as a kind of home.

"The jets would just roar," he said on a recent afternoon at the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Now, Cook, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Mission Viejo, is leading the charge to transform a small piece of that land into a final resting place for Orange County's veterans.

Although for Cook, building a veteran's cemetery at what was a Marine Corps air station in Irvine has been a dream since the base closed in 1999, the idea is finally gathering steam as the site, a swath known as the Orange County Great Park whose fate has been contested and revised for years, is divvied up.

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In January, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) introduced a bill that would ask the federal Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant to create a state-run Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.

And last month, as cities around the county registered their support for the bill, the Irvine City Council voted to form a committee tasked with exploring the possibility of making room for a cemetery in the park. The council is expected to begin forming that committee at its meeting Tuesday.

"Tonight, we should be making a strong, affirmative statement," Councilwoman Beth Krom said just before she cast her vote in favor of the plan at that March 11 meeting. "It's land that is steeped in history that we have committed ourselves to preserve and to honor."

But like so many aspects of the park's evolution, a seemingly simple idea with broad support is running up against the realities of developing some of the region's most valuable real estate.

Among the obstacles the plan faces are bureaucracy and concerns about funding.

Earlier this month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to support the bill, but with board Chairman Shawn Nelson joking that he "refused to participate" in a politicized vote that pitted the county's financial interests against veterans. Supervisor John Moorlach voted against supporting the bill, with strong reservations about whether government funding to keep up the site could be assured.

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