Central Valley communities took time on Monday to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
In Turlock, hundreds gathered for the annual Memorial Day service at Turlock Memorial Park amidst the newly refurbished Avenue of Flags. The Hilmar Community Band paid tribute to each of the U.S. military branches and representatives from the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts thanked those gathered for remembering what the holiday was all about — the nation's war dead.
The large crowd that turned out for Monday's somber ceremony did not surprise Vice Mayor Forest White.
"Patriots and love of country have always been strong in Turlock," he said.
As a general sense of patriotism and thankfulness for those who died to ensure freedom resounded throughout the crowd, Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen brought attention to those who were grieving much more personal losses.
"The men and women we honor today are real people. They were sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. They were strong and vibrant, loved and were loved and they will be greatly missed," Olsen said.
A Memorial Day ceremony held at the Ceres Memorial Park also paid tribute to the countless local men and women who gave up their lives or part of it in defense of the nation.
The event was staged by the Ceres American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and drew an appearance by Congressman Jeff Denham.
Denham said it was fitting to remember the fallen and recognize the more than 60,000 men and women in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties who served in every conflict since World War II. Then he focused on the recent scandal surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and scheduling delays to hide thousands of patients on secret waiting lists.
The Turlock Republican paid special homage to Thomas Breen, a 71-year-old Navy veteran who went to the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital where he was unable to receive treatment. His condition was listed as “urgent” in September but despite repeated calls by his family, Breen was not given an appointment and died in Nov. 30.
“The VA called a week later to book his appointment; it was too late for Mr. Breen,” said Denham.
He also focused on Vietnam War veteran James Byrd, who fought in the Marines from 1969 to 1970. He suffered from skin cancer – likely due to exposure to Agent Orange – and was also placed on a six- to nine-month wait at the Phoenix VA center.
“We now know James was never even put on a real list, only the secret waiting list,” said Denham. “When the VA finally screened him to see if the cancer had returned months later, it was also too late. There are 38 more stories like these of heroes who died waiting for care in Phoenix. We owe our veterans everything. They deserve the best possible health care we can give them and they deserve it immediately.”
Denham said he is “committed to getting to the truth of this widespread problem so that no veteran or veterans’ family member ever has to experience what those in Phoenix did. Rest assured I will not stop until we have the truth and make the drastic changes and hold those accountable for these wrongs that have happened to our veterans.”
The congressman said he is pressing for expediting construction of the 52-acre $368 million French Camp outpatient clinic and 120-bed Community Living Center to be constructed near Stockton starting next year. The hospital would reduce travel times for local veterans.