Noe Arana, 67, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 3834 in the City of San Fernando, served in the Vietnam War and knows the ugliness and illogical whims of conflict.
Like other veterans, he can’t explain why one person may die while someone next to him lives.
“I never could figure that out…I guess it was just your time. It could happen to anyone, anywhere, here too,” Arana said.
Arana escaped unharmed. All of his company did. He said he did not see action on the front lines; his job was in communications. But he was in the middle of the war, thousands of miles away from home and with the enemy at a stone’s throw.
“I know we lost a lot of people out there,” he said.
In 1968, Arana was a 17-year-old with his life ahead of him. He was working in a doctor’s office and someone told him he had to register to serve once he turned 18. He did, and “eight months later they called me.”
After basic training, he was sent to southeast Asia.
“At that age, you don’t think about dying. You just think you’re going to serve and meet people and have some friends,” said Arana, who was born in Mexico and was brought by his parents to the United States at age 10.
“We had a perimeter that we had to guard,” he recalled. “We had a couple of close calls. You could hear the shooting and mortars, but they never attacked us.”
Arana is thankful he returned home from the war unharmed, but knows that’s not a reality for all who served.
It’s why it’s important to commemorate Memorial Day, he said.
“That’s a good day to remember those who lost their life,” he noted. “We have to give thanks to them and thanks to God some of us made it out of there.”
On Monday May 29, America will pause from its hectic pace to give a day off from work and school so that people can commemorate Memorial Day.
The holiday is observed every year on the last Monday of May. It originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War. In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers.
By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged and Memorial Day eventually included all Americans who died while in military service.
A couple of events are planned for the northeast San Fernando Valley.
The Los Angeles Mission College Veterans Resource Center will have what it calls its biggest Memorial Day ceremony to date.
Ed Raskin, center director, said it’s important to help the community understand that Memorial Day is about honoring service members who never made it home.
“The northeast San Fernando Valley has one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the county,” Raskin said. “We’re talking about a serious tradition of service in this community.”
Memorial Day marks a special occasion for L.A. Mission College, which serves 170 student veterans directly, and another 400 indirectly, according to a 2014 Student Equity Plan. In addition to its veteran population, the college serves a population that Raskin describes as “military-connected students.”
The Mission College ceremony will take place on Thursday, May 25, at 11 a.m. at the campus quad. The event will include a performance by the Channel Islands Air National Guard Band, a color guard, interactive displays, and information booths for student veterans. The Culinary Arts Institute will prepare a barbecue lunch.
In partnership with the American Legion, the event will also feature a Vietnam veterans display of weapons, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier procedures, and table displays with presenters explaining the symbolism used by soldiers to express grief and loss. Students will have a chance to write notes to soldiers overseas through Operation Gratitude.
The event is free and open to the entire community.
“We hope the community will join us in honoring the memory of all American service members who have paid the ultimate price while protecting our great nation,” Raskin said.
The San Fernando Valley Historical Society continues its long-standing tradition with a Memorial Day Observance at the historic San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Sylmar from 11 a.m. to noon on May 29. The cemetery is located at 14451 Bledsoe St., at the corner of Foothill Boulevard.
The observance will include a rifle salute, US flag-raising, and the playing of “Taps.” It will be presented by various community groups including the Marine Corps League, San Fernando Detachment #1277 and Boy Scout Troop 104, Mission Hills.
“The recognition is nice,” said Gary Ballin, commander of the VFW Post 3834 in San Fernando. Ballin considers it important to remember those military members who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of the country.
“You get a lot of negativity, they call you warmonger and baby killer,” said Ballin, recalling many of the taunts Vietnam Veterans heard from protestors when they started returning home.
Ballin served in Vietnam from 1966-68. He was a radio operator at a base camp and remembers his 12-hour shifts where he had to call the command center every hour to report what was going on — and also “let them know you were still alive.”
Those shifts were usually at night and were “brutal,” he said.
At first he was in an underground bunker. Later, he was in a trench where “you never know who’s around you,” he recalled.
“We used to get rockets and mortars all the time,” Ballin said. Those weapons left 20-foot holes, but “you learn to live with that.”
His camp was overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers soon after he left, so Ballin knows he was one of the lucky ones to come out unscathed.
For him, Memorial Day brings the image of his father, Art Ballin, who served for five years in the infantry in Europe and the Pacific front during World War II.
But he also thinks about all who served.
“You look forward to [Memorial Day] in a way. You remember the veterans who didn’t make it,” Ballin said.