Memories shared at Memorial Veterans Barbecue

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Korean War veteran Ronald Yorton waves an American flag while listening to patriotic songs at the annual William J. "Pete" Knight Veterans Home Memorial Weekend Barbecue held May 25 in Lancaster. The event, co-sponsored by Coffee4Vets, Inc. and Crazy Otto Restaurant honored veterans with a free barbecue, entertainment and a chance to mingle with local dignitaries and politicians. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

The meaning of Memorial Day is to hold in one’s heart those people that veterans know as “absent friends and comrades,” and the meaning extends to members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.

At Bakersfield National Cemetery, Brig. Gen. Ernest John “Dragon” Teichert quoted the evergreen poem of mourning and loss in war, “Flanders Fields.”

Flanders Fields was the poem written by Lt. Col. John McRae, a Canadian medical officer whose close friend was shot and killed in the carnage of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I.

The poem made the poppy synonymous with the meaning of Memorial Day.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow … Between the crosses, row on row.”

Teichert, who commands the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB, spoke in support of veterans, and the service and sacrifices they have made, said Danny Bazzell, Edwards base director of outreach.

“His speech was very well received,” Bazzell said. “It was inspiring.”

Local veterans catch up while visiting together at the annual Memorial Weekend Veterans Barbecue held May 25 at the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home in Lancaster. The event, co-sponsored by the Coffee4Vets ,Inc. and Crazy Ottos Restaurant featured a free barbecue, entertainment and a chance to mingle with local dignitaries and politicians. Pictured from left, are George Washington, Leonard Thornton, Robert Hall, Toinette Lawson and Rosemary Bohanon. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

If Memorial Day weekend is the time for remembering military friends, comrades who are lost to time, there were hundreds, probably thousands, of such memories swirling around the barbecue hosted by Coffee4Vets at the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home on Saturday.

Some of the most senior veterans filling up plates at the barbecue where chef Jin Hur of Crazy Otto’s served up more than 600 pounds of barbecued meat were the ones, of course, who held the most distant memories. 

Hur’s son, Richard, served with the Marines in Afghanistan, and lost nearly two dozen friends during a deployment that was so hard it was called “The Million Steps.”

World War II Navy veteran Sherman Blakeslee, at 94, picked up the Sheriff’s “challenge coin” for oldest veteran in the gathering of more than 300 veterans and community supporters who turned out. The ceremonial coin was handed out by Lancaster Sheriff’s Station commander, Capt. Todd Weber, himself an Army veteran of the Cold War in Europe.

“My brother was a paratrooper,” Blakeslee recalled. “He served with the 101st Airborne. He died during the war.”

That was in 1944. At that time, Blakeslee was on the other side of the world, a radar operator aboard a baby aircraft carrier whose name was changed from Coral Sea, to USS Anzio — both the names of major World War II battles.

California 25th District Congresswoman, Katie Hill, center, talks with Army veterans, Steve Sandberg, left, and James Siskowski during a Memorial Day weekend, barbecue held May 25 at the William J. “Pete” Knight Home in Lancaster. The event, co-sponsored by Coffee4Vets Inc. and Crazy Ottos Restaurant honored local veterans with a free barbecue and local entertainment. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

“I was 19 years old,” Blakeslee recalled. “My brother was 21 years old. He volunteered for paratroopers. It’s what he wanted to do.”

Blakeslee said the family never learned the exact circumstances of his brother’s death. “He was a better man than me. …” and added, “My life has been blessed.”

In the long, winding barbecue line, such stories were shared. Also, stories that were happy, poignant and sometimes downright funny.

Palmer Andrew, another ninety-something, who served with Marines in the Pacific during World War II, arrived, accompanied by his grandson, Alan Quentin, and a brother Marine of a different era, Tony Tortelano. The three men shared good-natured ribbing, in addition to the ribs, pork and beef.

Andrew shrugged in Tortelano’s direction, and said, “We call him ‘Sgt. Cold War,'” and rolled his eyes. Tortelano rolled his eyes right back.

Andrew served in the Pacific under the legendary Marine, Lewis “Chesty” Puller, on a lethal, long-range patrol against the Japanese.

The caregiver grandson noted proudly that he has a yellow t-shirt with a Marine Corps insignia on the front, with a scroll that says “Grandson of a Marine,” and added, “It says ‘CIVILIAN’ on the back,” He laughed, and said “That’s the shirt I get to wear.”

The barbecue was a major undertaking, staffed by a platoon-size element of volunteers, and sponsors who support Coffee4Vets, a Tuesday morning gathering at Crazy Otto’s restaurant on Avenue I in Lancaster.

Coffee4Vets, Inc. co-founder, Atherine Blanco, left, presents a veteran’s shirt and memento book to long-time veteran supporter and former Congressman, Steve Knight during a ceremony and barbecue honoring veterans at William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home, May 25. The home is named in honor of Knight’s father, William J. “Pete” Knight. The Memorial weekend event, co-sponsored by Coffee4Vets and Crazy Ottos Restaurant featured a free barbecue for all veterans as well as entertainment and a chance to mingle with local dignitaries. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

Coffee4Vets President Juan Blanco introduced notables at the packed center courtyard of the state Veterans Home, which included Steve Knight, son of the Air Force war hero the home is named for, and Katie Hill, who succeeded Steve Knight as congressperson for the 25th District that includes most of the Antelope Valley. It was an auspicious appearance by the Republican, Knight, and Hill, the Democrat, but the pair put election differences aside to talk about service in the armed forces, and veterans.

Knight, born at Edwards AFB and a lifelong AV native, recalled that it was his father, Air Force Col. Pete Knight, who spearheaded the drive to build the Veterans Home that opened nearly 10 years ago, and that it took 14 years of effort to complete. 

The elder Knight, flying from Edwards AFB in 1967, set the world’s speed record for his flight in the X-15 rocket plane, a record that stands today. Finishing the X-15 program that qualified him for astronaut wings, he shipped out to Vietnam and flew 253 combat missions. Pete Knight died in 2004 after serving as Palmdale’s mayor and in both houses of the state Legislature.

Knight said his father wouldn’t have intended the Veterans Home to be named for him, but it came to be because of his Air Force service of 32 years, and his stature in the Antelope Valley.

“My dad would say, his words, ‘When you go out to Edwards and see a young lieutenant, or maybe an E-4 or E-5, tell them, ‘Thank you for what you are doing out here every day.’” He added, “If you can help out a veteran, help out a veteran … that’s what makes this Antelope Valley great.”

Hill continued on Knight’s theme of the duty to be of service to veterans and their families.

Crazy Otto’s restaurant owner, Jin Hur, tends to the grill as he prepares a barbecue for local veterans at the William J. “Pete” Knight Veteran’s Home in Lancaster, May 25. The Memorial weekend event, which was co-sponsored by the restaurant and Coffee4Vets Inc. provided a free meal , entertainment and a chance to mingle with local dignitaries and politicians. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

“Not a day goes by in Washington that I walk down the halls without thinking about the men and women who lay down their lives for this country,” she said. “Today we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, for our freedoms, for our liberty for our pursuit of happiness.”

“My thoughts are not only with those who lost their lives on the battlefield, but with those who brought their battles back with them,” Hill said, noting the VA’s estimate of 20 veteran suicides a day.

“Together we can end this epidemic, and ensure that the veterans who served us, are now served by us,” she said. “Simply put, our veterans in the Antelope Valley, and the nation, deserve the very best.”

Hill cited two pieces of legislation she is sponsoring, HR1997, to ensure evidence-based treatment for military mental health issues, and HR2223, the Helping Homeless Veterans Act.

“Nothing is more important than our continued dedication to our veterans and their families,” Hill said.

“I also would like to give love and support to the loved ones of those who have fallen, especially those here today. Our community in the Antelope Valley is robust, diverse and deeply dedicated to the bi-partisan work to support the veterans in our community.”

Noting that she grew up in the Antelope Valley, she closed, saying “I was raised by veterans who taught me that there is no higher honor than serving your country.”

Lancaster Councilman Ken Mann, son of a World War II veteran, announced the Knight Veterans Home will soon have a sizable city-dedicated sign at the corner of 30th Street West and Avenue I.

Local veterans and their families fill their plates at the annual Memorial Weekend Veterans Barbecue held May 25 at the William J. “Pete” Knight Veterans Home in Lancaster. The event, co-sponsored by the Coffee4Vets ,Inc. and Crazy Ottos Restaurant featured a free barbecue, entertainment and a chance to mingle with local dignitaries and politicians. (Photograph by Evelyn Kristo)

Palmdale’s assistant city manager spoke of the losses that come to mind and heart for veterans during Memorial Day events.

“There’s not many of us who have served, who have not lost someone, and we carry that burden with us,” said Palmdale’s assistant city manager, JJ Murphy, a retired Air Force major. “As veterans we are grateful for serving with people who gave us the freedoms we have today.”

Veterans Home Director Elvie Ancheta read Gov. Gavin Newsome’s statement honoring veterans on Memorial Day, and it was time to get to the ribs, and all the trimmings.