This Sunday morning a group of veterans will gather at the El Pueblo Historic Monument at Father Serra Park in Downtown Los Angeles to provide a small service to honor those who gave the largest sacrifice.
The veterans, members of various service organizations, meet each week to clean the 30-foot-long “Wall of Honor” that the city dedicated in 2009 to honor the 3,741 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Eugene A. Obregon/Congressional Memorial Medal of Honor Foundation hopes to break ground on the third phase of the memorial within the next year.
The third phase will feature a 12-foot by 12-foot base shaped as an Aztec pyramid. The base will feature the names of all 40 Latinos who have received the nation’s highest medal of valor in addition to Obregon’s medal citation. On top of the base will be a statue of Obregon shielding his friend, fellow Marine Bert Johnson. The full monument will stand 20 feet tall and will sit in the center of three concentric circles of brick and benches.
Obregon’s story was selected to represent all the medal recipients based on his East Los Angeles roots and the story of his friendship with his fellow Marine whom he died protecting, according to Francisco Juarez, a Vietnam veteran who currently leads AMVETS Post II.
“This entire project very easily can become the most prominent piece of art in the city because of the message that it sends, the brotherhood of mankind,” Juarez said. “Each Medal of Honor recipient’s citation is very different, but they’re the same in that everyone did something beyond the call of duty.”
Juarez said the message of the monument is not a celebration of war, but rather the lengths that service members will go to protect each other in the most dangerous of times.
“They wanted to showcase the good that we can really do for each other, regardless if you’re a veteran or not,” Juarez added.
Juarez said that the story of Obregon and Johnson is the perfect symbol for that message. A friendship between a Latino from East Los Angeles and an Anglo from Grand Prairie, Texas contrasted with the racial relations of 1950’s America.
As the nation continues a long and often contentious immigration reform effort, Juarez cites Obregon as an example of how Latinos are integrated into the history of the nation. “California, especially Los Angeles can be looked at like immigrants, everything that is not patriotic,” Juarez said. “The fact is this is the most patriotic place you can be, here at this memorial.”
Juarez pointed across the street to the Our Lady Queen of Angeles church where he, as was Obregon, was baptized. “I am not the best Catholic in the world, I don’t go to church every Sunday,” Juarez said. “But I do come here and when I come here I pray.”
Ray Delgado, a Marine and Vietnam veteran, oversees the work of the three original founders of the foundation who have now passed away. Delgado said everything is on track and the foundation is always seeking more contributions.
With so much focus on the next phase, he started the weekly clean up efforts by himself two years ago to ensure the memorial is always inviting to visitors. Now every Sunday morning at 8 am a group of 8 to 12 veterans can be found cleaning the memorial. Delgado views the Obregon Foundation as an umbrella organization that can bring together all veterans, from all eras.
Randal Camacho, a Navy veteran from the post-Gulf War era, joined the volunteer group just over a month ago.
“I want to do my part as a veteran, to help out while I can,” Camacho said. “I want to make sure the veterans are remembered.” Camacho commutes from Long Beach each week to contribute to the memorial.
Since its public unveiling in 2009, the memorial has stood relatively in peace. There are some minor graffiti scratches on the bronze plaque. There are marks to show an attempt to steal the plaque, most likely to cash in on the value of the bronze.
Ernie Aguilar is an Army veteran from the post-Gulf War era. He currently serves as post commander of AMVETS Post 33 in Wilmington and hopes to spread awareness of the memorial. An active member of the veteran community, he said he only came to know of the memorial 18-months ago. Since then he has led efforts to bring more volunteers to help with the clean up efforts.
“It’s not only spiritual or emotional,” Aguilar said. “It’s a must, as a reminder of all the people, and the people behind them, who keep us free.”
Aguilar said the memorial honors the service of those whose names are inscribed on the wall along with the service of anyone who has ever worn a military uniform.
He hopes to increase the Latino community’s support of the foundation so the memorial can be finished. Aguilar said he has committed 10 years to service in support of veteran organizations. He is currently in year 4.
As these veterans gather to clean the memorial, they will need the support of city officials to see the full vision of the memorial fulfilled. That support comes from Christopher Espinoza the current general manager of the El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority. In the past year Espinoza has added two street crossings to connect the memorial to Olvera Street and removed excess vegetation that often covered the existing memorial.
“We support veterans, they are very important to us,” Espinoza said. “They are part of our community.”
Espinoza will assist the foundation with project planning and navigating City Hall to complete the remaining phase.
Juarez said the Foundation hopes to break ground on the third phase within 12 months. Eddie Martinez will create the pyramid that will serve as the base of the statue. Erick Blom, the artist who created the Oscar De La Hoya and Wayne Gretzky statues at the Staples Center, will design the bronze statue of Obregon shielding his friend Johnson.
A fourth phase of the overall project will be the implementation of an educational program for local youth to lean about the achievements of Latinos and veterans throughout the nation’s history.
In the meantime these veterans will continue to meet each weekend to do their small part.
“This is one piece of our legacy,” Camacho said. “This is a tradition that I find gratifying.”
To learn more about the monument and to make a contribution to the Eugene A. Obregon/Congressional Memorial Medal of Honor Foundation visit www.obregoncmh.org. To read past stories about the memorial, go to www.EGPNews.com.