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Coast Highway Becoming Road to Recognition for Veterans

April 22, 2002|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vietnam's Highway 1 runs the length of the country, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

California's Highway 1 runs nearly the length of the state, connecting many of the military bases where soldiers trained in the 1960s and 1970s before heading off to fight in Southeast Asia.

The two roads are thousands of miles apart but for some Vietnam veterans are forever linked.

"We flew over it; we bombed it," Oxnard resident Dennis Hartman, 55, said of Vietnam's Highway 1. "But when I was in the country, and when I thought of Highway 1, I thought of the Pacific Coast Highway. Then I'd think, 'What am I doing here? What are we doing here?'"

Now, county by county, activists are moving to designate California 1 as a memorial to the 350,000 Californians who served in the Vietnam War.

State lawmakers later this spring will consider designating the Ventura County portion of PCH, from the county line west of Malibu through Oxnard, as Ventura County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. The route passes Naval Base Ventura County and Coast Guard and Air National Guard stations.

Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark), who was born at the former Ft. Ord Army base in Monterey, drafted the resolution at the request of Rich Camacho, president of Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County.

"It's just a way of telling the vets in Ventura County, 'Thank you. We may not have a big memorial for you, but at least we have a highway for you,'" Camacho said. "For other Vietnam veterans who are traveling, it makes them feel welcome here."

Last year, Assemblyman George Nakano (D-Torrance) carried similar legislation at the request of the Redondo Beach chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Several signposts mark the Los Angeles County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway from Long Beach to Malibu.

If the Ventura County effort succeeds, as is expected, the campaign would continue to other coastal counties, said Hartman, president of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach), who served two years in the Army in the 1960s, said he would support such an effort in Orange County.

"In every county you go to, you'll find Vietnam veterans who would be delighted to see these signs erected," Nakano said. "It's a way of saying, 'Thank you for serving our country.'"

Despite the hostile homecoming many Vietnam veterans received three decades ago, more than 1,000 memorials to that war have sprung up, said Marc Leepson, who runs the memorial clearinghouse for the Vietnam Veterans of America.

A few cities honored soldiers with memorial plaques during the war, but most government-sanctioned projects followed the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. California may have had one of the earliest bridge dedications. State transportation officials said a bridge along Interstate 5 near Sacramento was dedicated to service members in 1969.

It isn't clear how many hundreds of miles of memorial highways cut across the United States or how many states have memorial bridges. Neither Leepson nor transportation officials could provide an official count.

But the list of states adopting Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway designations has grown steadily over the last 20 years.

In 1982, Vermont dedicated a 138-mile strip of Interstate 89, which passes by a memorial rest stop in the town of Sharon. The highway was traveled by draft resisters on their way to Canada.

In Pennsylvania, a stretch of Interstate 95 around Philadelphia carries the designation. Legislatures in Delaware, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas also have adopted designations in recent years.

Road designations have advantages over monuments. They're cheaper and quicker to install and probably seen by more people. In California, veterans signposts will be funded by private donations.

"Because we're such a mobile state, maybe this is the best way to remind people of the sacrifices that these then-young men made," said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), a co-sponsor of the Ventura County legislation.

Oxnard resident Hartman, who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 as a rescue and recovery crew chief for the Air Force, said memorial roads take on a special meaning in California: "Driving a car, here in this state, symbolizes freedom."

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