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Marine Added to Controversial War Memorial

September 29, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Under a cool and gray sky, a plaque bearing the name and picture of Marine Cpl. Brian Kennedy, killed in a helicopter crash at the start of the war with Iraq, was added Sunday to a distinctive and controversial war memorial.

A small group of ex-Marines, other military veterans and people who knew Kennedy gathered atop Mt. Soledad for the quiet service to honor the young man who grew up in suburban Chicago, attended Purdue and Texas Tech universities and dreamed of being a teacher when his hitch in the Marine Corps was finished.

"He was such a warm young man, with such a big smile," said Grace Himmelsbach, who manages the apartment building in suburban Encinitas where Kennedy lived before his unit deployed to the Persian Gulf. "He was one of those rare, special people you remember your whole life."

Kennedy, 25, a helicopter mechanic stationed at Camp Pendleton, was killed March 21 when his CH-46 Sea Knight crashed in the Kuwait desert while on a combat mission. Four U.S. Marines and eight British Marines died in the crash.

Bob Woods, a sales manager for a San Diego photographic firm, was so touched by news accounts about Kennedy -- an all-state lacrosse player and National Honor Society member in high school who was described as a "stellar" Marine -- that he decided a plaque honoring Kennedy should be added to other plaques on the walls surrounding the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial.

More than 1,600 plaques bear the names, pictures and service records of veterans who served during wartime. At a cost of $600 to $1,000, the plaques are sold by the Mt. Soledad War Memorial Assn., the nonprofit group that owns the land beneath the memorial. The money helps the association maintain the memorial. Association members say there is room for 3,600 to 4,000 plaques. Nearly all are paid for by family members.

But Woods decided that he would pay for the plaque honoring Kennedy, although he had never met the Marine. "This young man believed in service," Woods said. "Because he went, other people's sons didn't have to go."

The idea for memorial plaques began after the association purchased the property in 1999 from the city of San Diego, which was embroiled in a lawsuit with the ACLU over the land.

"We want schoolchildren to be able to come up here 250 years from now and know what these veterans, like Cpl. Kennedy, did for their country," said Carl Dustin, a Navy veteran of World War II and the group's vice president.

Although requests for plaques are constant, the future of the memorial is unclear. The city has been locked in litigation over the hilltop site -- and the 48-foot-high cross that dominates it -- for nearly 15 years. The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a local military veteran who is an atheist, filed a federal lawsuit in 1989, asserting that the presence of a cross on what was then city-owned property violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

The city has insisted that the property is a war memorial and that the cross, erected in 1952, is more a historic symbol than a religious one.

Under pressure from a federal judge, the city arranged to sell the property at auction, and the war memorial association submitted the winning bid. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled that the auction had given an unfair advantage to the association because the rules had appeared to give preference to groups pledged to maintaining the cross.

In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal of that ruling. The case is now enmeshed in negotiations between the city and the ACLU, with the possibility of more court action and another appeal to the Supreme Court.

Political support for the cross and the plaque project remains strong at City Hall, but the city may be running out of legal strategies.

It is unclear what would happen to the cross, walls and plaques if the property were purchased by someone with different designs for the property, which has a panoramic view of La Jolla and the inland portion of San Diego. The association estimates it has spent $1 million on landscaping, benches and walkways.

Some plaques honor people who are still living, and there are plaques honoring multiple members of the same family. The plaque for Kennedy is adjacent to one honoring William Mauldin, whose cartoons of GIs "Willie and Joe" are among the most enduring symbols of World War II. The two plaques are readily visible to visitors climbing the steps to the foot of the cross.

Unmarried, Kennedy enlisted in 1999. He is survived by his mother and stepfather, Melissa and John Derbyshire of Port Clyde, Maine; and father, Mark Kennedy of Houston.

Woods said he wanted to ensure that Kennedy's plaque had a place of prominence. "I want this young man's legend to go on," he said.

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