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Veteran Spotlight: Jefferson Burbank United States Marine Corps

Today we are spotlighting Central Coast Veteran, Jefferson Burbank, a Vietnam War Combat Veteran who served in the U.S. Marines Corps from January 1968 – March 1970.
Growing up with a small immediate family and no grandparents, aunts, or uncles, Jefferson was very close with his older brother Winston and says that his respect for his brother drove him to make the most out of his life.

While serving in Vietnam, a few of his many duties included calling in airstrikes and serving as an 81mm mortar gunner. During the war, Jefferson experienced many harrowing experiences with tremendous bloodshed. This includes serving in Operation Oklahoma Hills in 1969 where he and his team faced incredible challenges in section 2 of the operation.

As Jefferson tells it, to this day, he vividly remembers the moment they were running up a vast expanse of hilly grasslands exposed to snipers surrounding them. Although they began the journey just after dawn, their destination was a ‘click away’ (a kilometer) with almost impossible odds against them. He recalls a sudden ambush resulting in many of his brothers in arms being shot down all around him. Remarkably Jefferson persevered and eventually found his way to a rescue chopper just in time.

When reflecting upon his return home, Jefferson attests to the social hardships and injustices he experienced as a Vietnam Veteran. Because of the unique brutality of the war and its unpopularity back home in the States, Jefferson, like many others, arrived home to hatred and harassment from community members for being a veteran. Still, he says there was always a “great comradery, like a brotherhood” among Vietnam veterans, an unspoken understanding. Today, he proudly wears his Marine colors and badges, in honor of those who did not return and finds peace of mind riding his motorcycle across the Central Coast.

Jefferson had intended to pursue a career as a veterinarian for large animals, but returning from war with multiple war injuries prevented that reality. He eventually ran a small business on the Central Coast after college. Today, Jefferson strives to support other veterans, especially those suffering from war induced disabilities as he does. He remains active in the veteran community through his involvement with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Atascadero, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Vietnam Veterans Riders, and the Gold Coast Wheelers.
Thank you for your service, and welcome home.

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Veteran Spotlight: Tim Haley U.S. Marine Corps

Veteran Spotlight Tim Haley

Today we are spotlighting Tim Haley, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966-1969.

In the Vietnam War, Tim was in 1st battalion 9th Marines 3rd Marine Division as a rifleman. He got into 60mm mortars in Charlie Company for 13 months, attaining the rank of Corporal. His battalion was known as “THE WALKING DEAD’, due to the highest number of casualties sustained by any other battalion in the history of the Marine Corps while in country.

Tim held numerous jobs throughout his service, including rifleman, ammo carrier, 60 MM mortar gunner, squad leader, section leader, and weapons platoon sergeant. His combat operations were in and around the Demilitarized Zone and served in the now famous battle known as, “The Siege of Khe Sanh.”

Tim was awarded the Purple Heart, Navy Achievement with Combat “V,” Good Conduct, Combat Action Ribbon, two Presidential Unit Citations, National Defense, Vietnamese Gallantry Cross Color with Palm Unit Citation, Vietnam Service with three Bronze Stars, Vietnam Campaign, Rifle Sharpshooter Badge, and Pistol Marksman Badge.

After service, Tim completed college on the GI bill and is married to the love of his life, Janet Campbell, for 54 great years with whom he has two daughters and three grandsons. Tim, a resident of Atascadero, is a current member of the Central Coast Leatherneck Honor Guard and was Founder of our museum, CCVMM, Museum Director, and Board Member. He led a Hwy 101 Purple Heart sign project and was awarded “Veteran of the Year” for California Assembly District.

Tim stays active: 1/9 network, 3rd Marine Division Association, Khe Sanh Veterans, DAV, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Los Osos Valley Memorial Park Veterans Events Committee, past Board Member of Atascadero Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial, Junior and Senior Vice Commandant of Central Coast Marine Corps League Detachment #680, past Commandant. Toys for Tots, member of Veterans Recognition Day Luncheon Committee and American Heritage Monument committee.

Thank You for your Service, Tim Haley!

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Veteran Spotlight: John Somics U.S. Army

Veteran Spotlight John Somics

Today we are spotlighting Central Coast Veteran, John Somics.

John is a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran who served as a combat engineer. Somics graduated high school in 1966. He decided to defer a semester of college and save up money, but on May 20th, 1968, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served for a year and a half.

His service began with training at Fort Ord in Monterey Bay. Later he went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and then Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland where he tested new mine detector technology. Because the detectors worked so well, he was sent to Vietnam to train soldiers there how to use them. However, due to a strange anomaly in the magnetic field the detectors failed.

As a result, John was stationed in Vietnam with the 11th Cavalry. Becoming a combat engineer, he was assigned the responsibility of looking for mines. Many of his peers and friends were drafted around the same time as him. When reflecting he feels the entirety of the war was all for nothing and they really suffered over there. At the same time, John says he is grateful to be alive today and is immensely proud to have been a part of the events of the 60’s that “changed the bloody world.”

John is a longtime member of Anglers Anonymous, a nonprofit fishing organization serving veterans with disabilities, where he takes veterans and first responders on fishing trips in Avila beach followed by tri-tip lunches. Over 600 veterans have benefitted from the organization. John also owns Damp Hero Bait Company and enjoys fishing in his free time.

After The Wall That Heals visiting San Luis Obispo in 2018, John worked with Trophy Hunters to create a beautiful exhibit of items left at the wall, currently on display in our museum.

Thank you for your service, John!

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Veteran Spotlight: Janice Somers U.S. Navy

Veteran Spotlight Janice Somers

Today we spotlight Central Coast Veteran Janice Somers.

Janice Somers is a Vietnam Era Veteran, who served in the U.S. Navy as a dental technician from 1968-1971. Throughout her service she worked in various locations across the United States, including dental school in San Diego. Her position as a dental tech is referred to today as a “Corpsman.”

Janice describes her pre-war self as “a reserved homebody.” She experienced a challenging upbringing with her father, a disabled Navy Veteran, passing when she was 15, motivating her to do something impactful with her life. Volunteering for the Navy was her first big experience making friends, trying new things, and advocating for a cause she believed in. Janice describes her experience working in the Navy as transformative and influential.

After she finished her service in 1971, Janice remained active in the field of dentistry working for local family dentists, utilizing skills learned from her work in the Navy. In total, Janice worked in dentistry for more than 15 years before her family relocated to the Central Coast in 1984. As Janet tells it, life in the Navy was rough sometimes but she enjoyed every minute of it. Through her experiences, Janice has gained a better sense of giving back, a greater patriotic pride for her country, and valuable life skills she can teach her sons.

As a female veteran, Janice often experiences discrimination or rejection of the validity of her service. Through her work with the American Legion Post #66 in San Luis Obispo, youth volunteer organizations, and government summer programs, she is actively working to change that stigma. It is her hope to create a future for today’s youth that encourages community service and perpetuates feelings of patriotism and selflessness for the purposes of bettering our country and ourselves.

Thank you for your service!

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Veteran Spotlight: Aileen Crews U.S. Navy

Veteran Spotlight Aileen Crews Marriam

Today we are spotlighting Central Coast Veteran, Lt. JG Aileen Crews, who served as a U.S. Navy Nurse during WWII.

In 1941, Aileen Crews graduated from high school in San Pedro, California. At the time, the day-to-day in her home life was a struggle and financial opportunities were limited, so she applied and was accepted into the French Hospital Nursing School in San Francisco. Aileen was always an excellent student. According to her younger brother, Jean, “She was the smart one in the family who won all the academic awards. To be a nurse was always her dream and the war intensified her ambition.” Upon graduation from nursing school, Aileen became Lt. JG Crews. She was stationed at Balboa Naval Hospital in California, where she treated wounded sailors. Throughout World War II, the hospital treated approximately 172,000 patients.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Boatswain Mate Russell Merriman was one of Aileen’s patients. As she nursed him back to health, they fell in love. After VJ Day (August 14, 1945), Lt. JG Crews remained in the Navy for two additional months. Following her honorable discharge, she was awarded the WWII Medal and a Medal of Good Conduct.

By September of 1945, she had married Russell Merriman and they moved to Russell’s hometown of Florence, SC, where they started their family. Sadly in 1947, Russell was involved in a fatal airplane accident, which led to Aileen’s return to San Pedro, CA with son Steve in hand and her son Russell about to be born. Aileen had new challenges to face. In time, Aileen remarried and had 3 more children. Having 5 children put her Navy Nurse skills to good use, and eventually she re-entered the workforce with nursing becoming a lifelong career. Even in retirement, she volunteered to draw blood for the Red Cross.

Aileen will be celebrating her 100th birthday next month, July 2023, in San Luis Obispo where she now resides. When reflecting on her upcoming 100th birthday, Aileen shares immense pride for her family’s 4 generations of service and patriotism. Her father Willman Crews served in the Navy during WWI, an older brother, Randolph, served in the Army during WWII, and younger brother Jean joined the Merchant Marines during WWII and was drafted by the Army serving in combat during the Korean War. Aileen’s two sons, Russ and Steve, both served in combat during the Vietnam War, and her grandson is currently in service, soon to be deployed overseas.

Thank you for your service, Aileen, and Happy 100th Birthday in July 2023.

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Veteran Spotlight: Kevin Jones United States Navy

December 2022

Today we are spotlighting Kevin Jones, who served in the US Navy from 1985-1991 as an Electronics Warfare Technician EW2 (SW), aboard the USS Saratoga CV-60.

During Kevin’s service he was involved with Libyan Operations, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Strom.

When reflecting on his service, he shared that the many learning opportunities and life experiences he encountered during life at sea, were amazing experiences which few ever get the opportunity do. He earned his ESWS title, which means Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist on an aircraft carrier. To do so, he learned every job and aspect of running the ship, from working on the bridge, navigation, to the boiler and diesel engine rooms to everything in between including flight operations and catapulting fighter jets off the deck.

As told by Kevin, “Some people in the Navy joke that NAVY stands for ‘Never Again Volunteer Yourself’ but I learned that being a volunteer and giving back is one of the greatest things we can do in life.”

He is currently a SLO County resident and has been working in Real Estate for over 30 years, with 21 years as a broker. Kevin says his experience serving in the Navy helped him establish a mindset, discipline and foundation that would be the basis of all further success.

Thank you for your service!

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Veteran Spotlight: Dan Smee U.S. Army

Today we are spotlighting Dan Smee, who served in the U.S. Army from 1983-1986 and California National Guard from 2002–2006.

Dan first joined the U.S. Army as a Medical Specialist (Combat Medic) serving until 1986.

Following the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks he enlisted in the California National Guard in 2002. He resumed his position as a medic after recertifying.

He was deployed from 2004-2005 to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), challenging his skills as a combat medic in action and experiencing the many highs and lows that come with war. Dan recalled how tough it was seeing friends die or get severely injured, then turn around to go on a mission only eight hours later. “You gather things up and mentally prepare yourself because the guy next to you is doing the same thing” he shared, “during the war zone tour I saw the best of humanity and the worst.”

Dan’s most notable award was receiving an ARCOM (Army Commendation Medal) for a mission in Iraq where he performed lifesaving duties as a medic. Dan also received a Parachutist Badge (Jump Wings).

Like many veterans, when Dan came home, he struggled with some of the effects of war. Once he found new meaning and purpose in life, he graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and received his master’s degree in social work from USC. Now he help’s other veterans as a social worker at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, while maintaining his ties to the Central Coast.

Dan is a Wounded Warrior Project Alumni and volunteer. He attended reunions with Army combat buddies, stays in touch through a Facebook group.

Dan’s experiences greatly affected him. He uses his military training and mindset to move forward, and all the ARMY core values and leadership traits to live the best life he can.

“The sacrifices I witnessed on the battlefield inspire me to continue with my life in the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and didn’t make it home..”

Thank you for you service.

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Veteran Spotlight: Ramona Hedges United States Navy

October 2022

Today we will be spotlighting Ramona Hedges.

Ramona served in the United States Navy in Aviation Administration, Petty Officer 2nd Class, from 1978-1986.

Ramona has a unique military history. She worked with F14s, C130s, and UH1N helicopters to schedule maintenance, inspections, track time on aircraft components and maintain technical manuals which are used to repair and inspect components on the different aircraft. She served for two years in Norfolk Virginia in the in the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD), two years at Naval Air Station, NAS Miramar in California, and three years at Point Mugu in California as part of Squadron VXE-6 detaching to Christchurch New Zealand and McMurdo Sound Antarctica.

As Ramona tells it, the Navy worked for the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of Operation Deep Freeze. Scientists from all over the world came there to research meteorological effects on the environment. In 1985 a hole in the ozone was discovered in Antarctica. She was on several helicopter flights carrying the scientists who made this discovery. It was quite exciting, and she learned a great deal about Antarctica.

Her team of servicemembers were tasked with bringing the first two loads of penguins to the San Diego Zoo for their first Penguin exhibit in 1985. She did this flying in a C-130 with 300 penguins at a temperature of 20 degrees below zero! They had three refueling stops, Auckland NZ, Barbers PT HA, and San Diego CA. Each of these three legs of flight were eight hours long, totaling 24 hours, wearing extreme cold weather gear, taking occasional breaks in the cockpit where it was heated.

She recalls the odor was terrible and it was very loud. Penguins complaining and arguing with each other. Many penguins perished, but today’s Penguin exhibit are descendants of those original two flights. This was all voluntary on the premise that the team would get three days liberty in San Diego before returning to Antarctica. Once they returned, they were told they did such a good job that they were going to do it all over again!

“The service instilled in me a strong work ethic. Later in my career working at the Sheriff’s Office this ethic and the military helped me assimilate to law enforcement ethics” shared Ramona.

She was awarded the Antarctic Service Medal and is a member of the “OAE’s” “Old Antarctic Explorers.” Ramona has been a San Luis Obispo County resident since 1987 and is also a member of the American Legion.

Thank you for your service!

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Veteran Spotlight: Richard Powell United States Air Force

Today we will be spotlighting, Richard “Rich” D. Powell Jr.

Richard served in the United States Air Force, from 1967-1971 as a Weapons Mechanic/Loading and completed his service as a Staff Seargent.

A weapons loading crew is made up of four Airman, and there are seven load crews per fighter squadron. He worked three of the four positions during his enlistment. Richard worked mostly as the Crew/Team Chief and worked as the number two man (cockpit man), three men (munitions prep man). Richard missed the military structure and after discharge from the Air Force he enlisted in the Army National Guard and Retired after 22 combined years of military service as a First Sergeant.

In addition to schools and training duty stations, Richard served two tours in Vietnam during the war as a well temporary duty tour in Spangdahlem Airforce Base (AB) Germany, as part of Operation Crested Cap, a NATO organized exercise.

“In Vietnam we were always shorthanded and working 12-to-14-hour days or till the job was done. Maybe a day off every couple of weeks” shared Rich. He recalls the intensity of it, knowing that every mission was critical, and the occasional rocket, mortar, or sapper attack made it real. There was a meaning and the mission. During the deployment to Germany, they loaded live nuclear weapons, first and only time other than training it was a real-world mission.
Richard recalls, “I have never worked with a finer group of guys. Of course, we were all in our late teens, early 20’s, we learned responsibility, accountability, and working together. That did not mean we didn’t disagree or fight, because we did. Let some outsiders try something and he had to fight us all.” In those days 462’s weapons guys had a rather big attitude about things and other people and at the time were very vocal about it. The camaraderie, brotherhood, and bonding with others was all part of his service experience.

For Richard’s distinguished service he was awarded the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with “V” device, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, Air Force Longevity Award, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Maintenance Skill Badge.

Richard was discharged in January 1971 and went back to school and earned an associate degree in Forestry from Modesto Junior College where he met his wife. He transferred to Cal Poly in 1972 and while going to school during the day got a job working as a Correctional Officer with the Sheriff’s Department. After a year he was promoted to Deputy Sheriff. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State and spent the next 35 year working in law enforcement.

Richard tells us his military experience taught him self-discipline, accountability, responsibility and the importance of doing things right the first time when given a task. Additionally, it taught him to be loyal and to be committed to doing what’s right even if it’s not easy.
Richard has remained very active in our local community between his many volunteer commitments with 4H, Friday Night Live, Grizzly Youth Academy, Central Coast Veterans Memorial Museum, Post #66, and the Central Coast Honor Flight. Richard is a lifetime member of the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans Association.

Thank you for your service, and the endless hours you’ve dedicated to volunteering in our community.

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Veteran Spotlight: Robert Bob Mellema United States Air Force

August 2022

Today we will be spotlighting Robert J. (Bob) Mellema.

Bob served in the United States Air Force as a pilot for 24 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel on December 31, 1973.

Bob signed up for the Army Aviation Cadet Program at the age of 17 in 1943. With no billets available at that time, he entered the reserves. When WWII ended in 1946 Bob was released from his active-duty obligation and attended college at the University of Southern California where he achieved his bachelor’s degree in finance.

Bob married in 1948 and has three children. He was recalled to active duty in 1951 during the Korean War, as a Private 1st Class.

He entered flight training in Texas where at the successful conclusion he was promoted to Staff Sargent and after completion of Officer Candidate School was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. Bob’s first assignment as a pilot was in Alaska where he flew, short take-off and landing single engine planes, mostly on water and ice. Bob continued his military career at several duty stations and aviation related schools, including a stint in Rio De Janeiro at Joint Brazil, as a Military Assistance Advisor.

In 1969 and 1970 Bob was assigned to the 7th Air Force Headquarters in Vietnam where he flew classified missions which included flying General Westmorland and the US ambassador. Bob returned to the States because of a family illness in 1970 and was assigned as the officer in charge of flight testing at Hughes Aircraft in Southern California where he completed his service and retired from the United States Air Force in 1973. After retirement from military service, he stayed in Southern California, and had a successful career in Real Estate until his retirement from that career in 1991. He then moved to San Luis Obispo County to be near his daughter.

Bob was awarded numerous medals for his distinguished service as both a pilot in Vietnam as well as the Chief of Flight Test Operations at Hughes Aircraft Company including the, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal (numerous), the Naval Reserve Meritorious Service Medal, American Defense Service Medal, WWII Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (numerous), the Armed Forces Reserve Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

Bob has stayed active in various Military Veterans Organizations and is a Lifetime Member of the Military Officer Association. He attended the Veterans Honor Flight to Washing DC in 2013 and prior to and since has been honored by numerous local and national politicians for his extraordinary service to our nation.

Thank you for your service!