Whenever Lorenzo Reyes hears taps, his thoughts flash back to World War II, when several of his friends died by his side in combat.
"Taps is something you never forget," said Reyes, an Army veteran from Orange. "I remember the times I've been to funerals. People don't understand what it's all about. People who aren't in the service don't understand the way we do. They don't give it enough importance."
Wednesday, on Veterans Day, Reyes heard taps again. This time the occasion was not a funeral but a commemoration of the sacrifices that Reyes and other U.S. servicemen have made during the nation's wars.
The ceremony took place Wednesday morning outside the Costa Mesa City Hall, where about 100 veterans and their families sat under picture-perfect skies to watch the dedication of a new veterans memorial by the city and American Legion Post 455.
After the small stone monument was unveiled at the base of a flagpole, nine Medal of Honor recipients from Southern California were publicly recognized for their bravery during World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. The nine men--including two from Orange County--are among 231 living recipients of the medal, which is the country's highest award for valor.
The nine veterans sat on a platform as Costa Mesa City Councilman Peter Buffa recounted their wartime exploits. Behind each man stood a person wearing the military dress of the particular conflict in which the veteran was involved. All but one of the veterans wore civilian clothes; all displayed their medals, attached to blue ribbons worn around their necks.
"Standing behind these guys, listening to what they went through, what they were willing to do for their country, I couldn't help but get goose bumps," said Jim Threadgill, 25, a military historian from Norco, Riverside County, who wore the uniform of one of the veterans.
"They did a lot for our country. It's a great honor to come here and pay tribute to them. When you hear their stories, you realize they weren't doing it for a medal or for a tribute; they were doing it for their country."
Other veterans and their families seated in folding chairs applauded the medal recipients.
"It's a fantastic feeling to be honored," said Walter D. Ehlers, a retired army lieutenant and resident of Buena Park who fought in World War II. "When I received the medal, I was pulled out of combat, so I was really happy. My brother was in the same outfit as me and was killed . . . on D-Day. I lost friends too."
Medal recipient William Barber of Irvine, a retired Marine colonel who served in Korea, described the ceremony as "an honor and a confirmation of approval for my service."
As the ceremony was ending, four F-4 Air Force jets flew in low formation over City Hall.
"When the flyover took place, I couldn't even speak," said Robert Hanson, commander of American Legion Post 455. "It's a very emotional time for us."
World War II veteran Jack Kaplan spent Veterans Day by hawking red paper poppies from the middle of a busy intersection outside South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
Kaplan, 72, a retired apron manufacturer from Irvine, drew curious stares from passers-by as he sold the poppies from a traffic island on Sunflower Avenue at Plaza Drive. A member of Jewish War Veterans, Harry Hoff Post 595 in Fountain Valley, Kaplan said he was selling the poppies to help raise money for disabled veterans.
"C'mon, buy a poppy," Kaplan said to motorists in a thick New York accent. "Help the disabled Americans. C'mon, give a quarter. Anything."
Some motorists stared straight ahead, keeping their hands clenched to the wheel. Others dug into wallets and purses for $1 or even $5 bills to give Kaplan, who wore a black J. W. V. military cap and hoisted a shopping bag full of money and poppies.
Kaplan said he began selling poppies in 1950 to raise money for veterans, a tradition in America since World War I days. Since then, he has sold the poppies in cities all across the country. He has spent the last three years selling poppies in the South Coast Plaza area.
Kaplan's wife, Clara, said her husband stands out all day collecting funds for disabled veterans, despite severe pain he suffers from arthritis.
"He really is a character," she said. "It took me a long time to get used to his crazy ways."