A vehicle in the Veterans Day caravan meeting up at Mountain View Cemetery in Calexico on Wednesday morning, Nov. 11, begins the loop around the cemetery before heading south to main part of the city, and ultimately, the Calexico Veterans Memorial, where a ceremony was held near City Hall. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
CALEXICO — Calexico residents came together to demonstrate their support and appreciation for their local veterans during a caravan and Veterans Day ceremony early Wednesday morning, Nov. 11.
“We have to pay our respects to our guys,” said Calexico resident Jose Cuellar, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran. “To the men who served and to those who are no longer with us anymore.”
Like past Veterans Days, Cuellar joined fellow members of the American Legion Goree-Lake Post 90 and their families as they met early in the morning at Mountain View Cemetery.
“The reason we come to this cemetery is because we have a lot of our friends buried here,” Cuellar said. “We take the opportunity to go visit their gravesite and pay our respects to them.”
In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the local American Legion post expanded its Veterans Day ceremony to no longer be centralized at the cemetery due to the limiting space and the need for those gathering to be six feet apart, explained organizers.
As a result, members of Post 90 opted to include the cemetery as an initial meeting place before caravanning in their cars and trucks around the cemetery to travel southbound toward Calexico’s City Hall, where they held the official Veterans Day ceremony a short time later in front of the Calexico Veterans Memorial.
“I’m really glad to participate because it pays tribute to the veterans,” Cuellar said. “We are a small community of course and hardly anyone might notice this thing, but to us it means a lot.”
About 11 cars met at the cemetery before the caravan left. Some wrote messages of gratitude and support for veterans on the sides of their cars, while others drove by waving the American flag along with military flags from their respective armed forces.
“One of my Calexico classmates, Jose Lopez, got killed in Vietnam on June 3, 1968,” Cuellar recalled from his own time spent fighting during the Vietnam War. “He was 32 years old and very special to me, so I make it a point when I come here to go say hi to him.”
Like many young men during the Vietnam War, Cuellar entered the Army following his high school graduation. After completing his basic and advanced individual training, Cuellar was deployed to Vietnam where he served for a year.
Although Cuellar went on to re-enlist in the Army in the years that followed his time in Vietnam, he fondly remembers the way he would run into fellow Calexico High School classmates who were also stationed in Vietnam.
“If you’re from Calexico, they would call you by your nickname,” Cuellar said. “I was in Vietnam grabbing some milk in our mess hall when someone yelled, ‘Pika,’ and I remember I got a chill because no one outside of Calexico would know to call me that.”
Hearing his nickname and seeing familiar faces from Calexico often reminded Cuellar of his hometown and the people he was fighting to protect while stationed in Vietnam.
A sea of miniature American flags surrounded much of Mountain View Cemetery as the parade of cars passed by making their way to City Hall.
“I realize to a lot of people, today is just a holiday. Unless you’ve been in the military, you don’t really know what it feels like to be a veteran and still be in this world,” 85-year-old vet Joe Vindiola said.
Vindiola, a Calexico native and former commander of the Goree-Lake Post 90, helped organize the Veterans Day ceremony along with fellow members of the American Legion.
“I’m feeling sad and happy. Sad because my three brothers are deceased now, two of them were in the U.S. Army and one of them was in the Air Force,” Vindiola said. “But happy because I have got my great granddaughters here today.”
Vindiola has been bringing his granddaughters, and now even great-granddaughters, to the Veterans Day ceremonies held in Calexico for the past 40 years.
“I served 26 years in the military,” Vindiola said. “I was in the Air Force for 10 years in active duty and 16 years in the U.S. Army Reserves.”
Vindiola addressed several members of the public in front of the Veterans Memorial following a demonstration by the color guard presented by members of the Calexico Police Explorers.
The ceremony also included a city proclamation read by City Council member Lewis Pacheco, which recognized the city’s role in memorializing Calexico veterans that served their country since 1919. Pacheco also mentioned how the local monument was recently cleaned up and repaired for the event.
Following Pacheco, Calexico resident Maribel Gorosave also spoke during the event to directly commemorate Vietnam War veterans present at the ceremony.
Gorosave, a U.S. Marine veteran and adjutant for the American Legion Post 90, spoke to the community about the sacrifices Vietnam veterans in particular made for their country and the poor response they often received upon arriving home.
She told of the seen and unseen wounds that many of the veterans endured in the years following their return home.
The ceremony concluded with a benediction from Father Jose Sosa of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Calexico and a round of applause to those veterans present at the event.
“This is something that should be remembered,” Vindiola’s granddaughter Karen Cuen said. “It’s not just a holiday for me, I grew up with this being something more important and valuable.”
A Calexico resident, Cuen made sure to bring her two young daughters to the ceremony in the hopes of passing on a tradition she started when she was just 5 years old.
“I want to show my girls, because I grew up knowing this is important for us,” she said, having helped out during past Veterans Day ceremonies. “We are living like this because of people like them, that fought for us and for those who are still fighting for us.”