Honoring the valley’s veterans

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Connie George
U.S. Army veteran, private investigator and community leader Mike Pierson, 66, stands in the military service memorial plaza he has worked to install at the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery. Combining his reverence for the dedication of all military servicemen and women along with his investigation skills, Pierson is spearheading an extensive project to document the lives of all local veterans, living and deceased, and to honor them with memorial tiles and other tributes.
Photo by Connie George

Coachella Valley’s military veterans are receiving special attention through a project spearheaded by a former Army staff sergeant and weapons expert who seems to be uniquely suited to the job.

Mike Pierson’s two tours of duty in Vietnam, combined with his profession as a private investigator and extensive community involvement, provide him ideal qualifications for establishing a biographical memorial project.

His aim is to chronicle everyone from the valley who has ever served in the military during wartime or peacetime, either living or deceased.

Building a memorial

Current commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3699 in Indio, Pierson, 66, said his curiosity about the history of valley veterans was sparked when he researched Bill Huntington, for whom the post is named.

His findings turned up Huntington’s service during World War I as an Army sergeant, including his death in France on Oct. 28, 1918 as the first Coachella Valley serviceman to die in that conflict.

Also a member of the American Legion and other veterans groups, Pierson learned after additional digging that Herman R. Granados, namesake of Indio’s American Legion Post 739, was an Army private who died on Dec. 8, 1941 in the Philippines during World War II.

Pierson’s quest to learn more about others from the valley who served their country became an official VFW post research project in 2003, but by 2006 had grown so swiftly with the support of other related groups that it developed into a nonprofit organization called the East Valley Memorials Foundation.

A few veterans’ memorials have been erected in the valley to honor those who served in specific wars or were lost in battle, but Pierson and his group wanted to build one recognizing all locals who served.

Space was secured at the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery at  Avenue 52 and Jackson Street in the City of Coachella, and $85,000 in donations from the cities of Coachella, Indio, La Quinta and Palm Desert were contributed for the construction of a veterans’ memorial plaza that now features three walls on which engraved tiles honor service members.

Tiles on the Wall of Honor recognize the names, military branches and ranks of those who served. On the neighboring Medal of Honor wall, tiles cite those who served with special distinction. An Ultimate Sacrifice wall memorializes those whose lives were lost in the course of duty. Tiles cost $100 each and are usually paid for by family or friends of the veterans.

Those who served

For Pierson, paying ongoing tribute to the valley’s veterans is a personal mission. Several veterans from his own family are listed on the Wall of Honor, but he is also familiar with the life stories of many other men and women whose names appear in the memorial plaza.

The Indio resident’s knowledge of these individuals has come in part from interviews he has conducted with the veterans themselves or with their family members.

“I wanted to know about these people,” he said. “They’re not just names, they’re human beings just like me, and when their country called, they stepped up and served.”

A challenge to Pierson’s research is that little has been previously recorded about the valley’s veterans. Local historical societies have very limited details, he said. “They have information on the pioneer date growers, but little on these people,” he noted.

A personal calling

Another factor driving Pierson’s dedication to the memorial project is that he feels his own military service was so unremarkable that he didn’t give enough to his country.

In spite of spending eight years in the Vietnam War, he experienced only one major attack by Viet Cong, was never injured, and came home with no lingering issues. Overall, he said, “I felt like I was Marco Polo on an adventure.”

Knowing that many of his comrades did not survive the same conflict as unscathed, Pierson said he feels like he owes it to all veterans to honor them in every way he can. “I have an obligation to remember them, to honor them.”

Of great reward to him is witnessing the pride and gratitude many veterans show upon finding their names on the memorial walls.

As a gift to his alma mater, Imperial High School, Pierson had a plaque made honoring numerous fellow alumni who also served in the military, and was heartened by the meaningful response it received from those named.

“All these connections that are made through military service — how can you not honor it and stay engaged?” he asked.

The ‘great melting pot’

Based on the details of those currently honored in the memorial plaza, Coachella Valley military veterans clearly represent a broad cross-section of ethnicities and cultures.

Of this range of diversity, Pierson said military service members “are the great melting pot, and what does that say about people who can’t give up certain prejudices?” Because when it comes to protecting one’s country, he noted, everyone is working on the same side for the same purpose.

The East Valley Memorials Foundation is gathering additional names and tiles to fill more walls. Two more phases of the plaza are planned as the project grows.

For more information on the memorial project, to provide historical information on local veterans, or to arrange a tile in honor of a local veteran, contact Pierson by email at miketpierson@aol.com.

 

In recognition of this year’s Veterans Day on Sunday, Nov. 11, several local events are planned:

Saturday, Oct. 27, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Veterans Expo
Riverside County Fairgrounds, 82503 Hwy. 111, Indio
Admission: Free

Keynote speaker retired Major General Peter J. Gravett, Secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs; award ceremony honoring two active duty and two local veterans; stage salute to all veterans by local legislators and dignitaries; 60 vendors; WWII exhibits; free hot dogs, beverages and snacks.
For more information: (760) 861-0037

Saturday, Nov. 10, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Veterans Day Celebration
Palm Springs Air Museum, 745 N. Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs
Admission: Free to active military with I.D.; included for all others with museum admission ($8 to $16)

Veterans Day commemoration and 16th museum anniversary celebration with cake, family activities and exhibitions.
For more information: (760) 778-6262 or www.palmspringsairmuseum.org

Sunday, Nov. 11, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Veterans Day Ceremony
General Patton Memorial Museum, 62510 Chiriaco Rd., Chiriaco Summit
Admission: Free

Air salute flyover by WWII planes at 11 a.m.; Patton Award presentation; WWII vehicles; car show; chili cook-off; contests; booth and exhibits.
For more information: (760) 227-3483 or www.generalpattonmuseum.com

Sunday, Nov. 11, 3:30 to 5:15 p.m.
16th Annual Palm Springs Veterans Day Parade
Palm Canyon Drive, Downtown Palm Springs
Admission: Free

Includes 50 parade units, exhibits along the parade route and a post-parade celebration with concert and fireworks display.
For more information: (760) 323-8265 or www.palmspringsca.gov