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Honoring the Fallen: From One Man’s Mission to Unique Memorial

The city of Irvine has long held a connection with the U.S. military, dating all the way back to World War II, before Irvine was even incorporated as a city, when the US Navy opened a blimp port and the USMC Air Station El Toro, right on the edge of what would soon become the community we know today.

With the longstanding spirit of respect for the military found within residents of Orange County and the city of Irvine, it should be no surprise, then, that Irvine is home to one of the most important and unique war memorials in the country. In honor of Memorial Day, we remember the importance and history of the

The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial can be found on the corner of Bryan Avenue and Yale Avenue, connected to Northwood Community Park in the center of the community of Northwood Village on the northeast side of Irvine. What is now a permanent fixture of the city, however, was once a temporary passion project of a few dedicated Irvine community members.

The origins of the Northwood Memorial stem back to 2003, shortly after the war in Iraq had begun, and American casualties were beginning to be reported. One man, Northwood resident Asher Milgrom, felt something needed to be done to recognize the American troops dying in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, Milgrom bought some lumber and built wooden crosses out of his garage. He built one cross for every service member that had been killed within a week of the war’s initial invasion. He and his family brought the crosses to Northwood Community Park and drove them into the ground, with no guarantee the city wouldn’t notice and remove them.

Courtesy of city of Irvine

The city did not touch the makeshift memorial. In fact, it quickly grew in popularity, with members of the community joining in, bringing yellow ribbons and flowers to decorate the groupings of crosses. The temporary display would become an annual tradition. Every year, the crosses were erected in the park around Memorial Day, and stood standing through the Fourth of July. Volunteers built and added more and more crosses as the war waged on and American casualties grew.

Despite some initial pushback from the city, it was clear this community-led memorial tradition was not going away, with residents from all across Southern California joining it year after year. Within a few years, memorial volunteers began the push to have a more permanent memorial be installed at the Northwood Community Park.

As the proposal for the memorial moved higher up the ladder, more and more opinions arose. Some city leaders wanted to move the memorial to Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park, while others wanted to reduce the memorial in size to a single, generalized plaque. But the memorial’s volunteers and champions pushed back to ensure that every individual sole got the recognition they deserved, not in some generic or reduced way.

In 2009, the city and the citizens of Irvine finally came to a consensus, and the city approved the plans for the memorial we see now. Five sentinels, with four panels each, carrying the engraved names of the fallen, along with another monument dedicated to the hard work of the community that came together to make the memorial happen. Near the towering blocks of stone, a flagpole, with the words sacrifice, honor, courage and valor inscribed at its base.

Courtesy of city of Irvine

The memorial was built and officially dedicated on November 14, 2010. To this day, as far as can be seen, it is the only memorial in the country dedicated to honoring, by name, the American Fallen Heroes, exclusively from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 6,800 names appear on the walls of the memorial’s sentinels.

Steve Wolford, a longtime resident of Irvine, wrote a poem for the memorial that is now inscribed on one of the monuments. You can read his words below:

At Bryan and Yale where the marigolds grow, wooden signs at attention, row after row, stand guard in the park bearing thousands of faces, and here and there in the twilight amid silent embraces, the faithful appear to give voice to these brave and to honor the fallen who yet speak from the grave.

As I stroll through the rows I’m overcome by this loss, and overwhelmed by the numbers I am tempted to gloss over each name and the words that explain, date, rank and cause of the loss and the pain. These too-few-words on a mother’s heart weigh, I need to read slowly at this sacrificial display.

‘Extraordinary heroism’ and ‘uncommon valor’ are here, ‘Ultimate selfless act of bravery’, I read on with a tear. ‘Redeployed to heaven’, ‘in total disregard for his own life’, ‘Mom and Dad don’t forget me’, the words cut like a knife. You are not forgotten, Jake, so much loss is my gain, and I want to say Thank You, you’ve not died in vain.

Overwhelmed by my selfishness amid flicker of flames, I’m not worthy tonight to call out these names: Daily, Martinez, Probst, Taylor, Santee. These are our heroes; they gave all for me, And as I lifted my head the flags danced in the breeze. I felt convicted inside – how I walk away with such ease.

I am the reason you paid the ultimate price, and as I stand with my freedom, words hardly suffice.

Thank you sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers. Thank you families all, and you sisters and brothers. You give us your all, you give us your best, I want to say thank you, because of you we are blessed.

We stand with our freedom here at Bryan and Yale, 6,829 heroes; oh, may we not fail to give thanks for the price each one of them paid, and to celebrate their lives and the sacrifice made. And as bugle horn penetrates our free evening sky, as we stand in these rows, this we know…God is nigh.

A special candle lighting ceremony will be held at the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial on Sunday, May 26, at 4 p.m.; Northwood Community Park, 4531 Bryan Ave., Irvine.

Courtesy of city of Irvine