Conflict mars care for La Mesa’s Heartland Youth for Decency Vietnam War Memorial site
Orest Zalopany was the La Mesa mason who volunteered to build the stone war memorial with engraved plaques on the sides and a white cross atop, which still resides at the northwest corner of Spring Street and University Avenue in La Mesa. One of the first Vietnam War memorials ever constructed to honor East County troops who died in Vietnam.
The original dedication ceremony was held on June 14, 1970. Then Oresta (Zalopany) Johnson was one of the founding members of the Heartland Youth for Decency (HYFD), a group of teenagers who advocated and supported building the memorial, out of determination that their East County neighbors who died during combat would be remembered—despite the contentiousness surrounding the Vietnam War.
Oresta Johnson is the sole remaining HYFD founding member now living in the Heartland area. She visits the HYFD Vietnam War Memorial on special occasions to remember her father and place a rose amid the stones.
Johnson spoke at the La Mesa City Council on July 14, to give an update on the memorial. She briefed the council on the memorial’s restorations since 2013, after the masonry and grounds had succumbed to disrepair. Johnson helped spearhead efforts and fundraising that culminated in formal rededication of the HYFD Vietnam Memorial on June 14, 2014.
Contentiousness swirled around the memorial at repeated intervals since its inception. Former La Mesa mayor Art Madrid said the city surrendered ownership of the monument after being sued in the 1990’s over presence of a cross within the Mt. Helix logo on police vehicles, and in 1997, ceded the property to the La Mesa American Legion Post 282, with two conditions. To maintain the site in perpetuity as a war memorial, and required it to pay the bills for the property.
Madrid estimated through the combined efforts of HYFD and sponsoring organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 472, money and contributions brought in more than $18,000 in cash in addition to discounted skilled labor and materials.
Johnson told City Council that two missing names had been added to the memorial, for a total standing at 76 Heartland area troops who had died during the Vietnam War. She discussed a planned handicapped access retrofit at the memorial and an impending public request for donations.
Johnson mentioned the “concerns of family members and surviving friends” of those Heartland fallen, that the “original purpose and intent was being sidetracked.”
Johnson said repairs were made to the broken irrigation system before the rededication. She said despite the repairs, La Mesa American Legion Post 282 Commander John Porath, declared his intention to replace existing landscaping with Astroturf or rock to lower the water bill.
Johnson said the memorial was intended as a park and a grass lawn provides solace to veterans. She said the Helix Water District put the cost for maintaining the memorial as is, at approximately $55.78 every two months, which includes a fixed rate of $43.36 baseline charge, to be paid regardless of any further actions.
Porath said, “When we took over possession of the memorial in 1997, it was in very bad shape. I applaud Heartland Youth for what they have done. They have done a tremendous job.”
But Porath said dealing with Johnson is to the point where nothing gets accomplished.
“I’m astounded by the reaction,” he said. “She storms down here yelling at people. I have a lot of patience with people, but I have come to a point where I can’t deal with her. I get demands, not requests.”
Johnson disagreed, saying the contentiousness begins and ends with Porath. He, in turn, claimed Johnson misunderstands veterans, and he has a larger purpose in reducing bills to assure the financial balance of the Post’s business operations.
“In cost cutting, going back to the grass, it is an issue,” Porath said. “The drought is going to be here forever because of climate change. So one of the things we are looking at is ripping the grass out and putting in nice river rock that won’t do a thing to detract from the monument.”
Gary McDonough, who worked as the principal landscaping consultant and landscaper for the rededication, said he strongly disagrees with Porath. He said the restoration included water efficiency measures, and the existing lawn is Bermuda grass, because it requires “next to no maintenance and minimal watering.” He said the trees on the memorial grounds would die, if Porath’s plan was implemented.
Porath said the Post had a financial crisis when he “took over” and he worked diligently to make improvements, but it still has strong obligations in repair of the entire facility. As for the memorial, he said it cost between $2,000 and $2,400 a year to maintain.
Johnson said the first friction developed when Porath attempted to control portions of the rededication program. She said he tried to “dictate” the program agenda, sending back revisions of the program she provided. Johnson described Porath as “really testy,” saying, “He got verbal one day.” However, she invited Porath to lead the Pledge of Allegiance for the ceremony.
Porath said he was “invited to help with the planning” for the ceremony and at the first meeting realized there was no order of business.
“I drew up a proposed order of business and gave it to her,” he said. “It was an input. I was never trying to take over the event. Then I was told at the ceremony that the police were there to watch my conduct because I might be disruptive.”
After the Flag Day 2014 program, an East County woman stopped Johnson, to request that another name be added to the memorial’s plaques. Johnson and Sandra Luhnow, a Gold Star Widow whose husband Glenn’s name is engraved on the HYFD memorial, shortly thereafter took her information about the man and began investigating his military service records.
Porath said he has a letter he is attempting to answer from “the family” she represents, and is trying to “resolve” this issue.
“No, this is not the end,” he said. “All of them (whose names are on the memorial) were not in La Mesa when they died, they were somewhere else. What matters is what his Home of Record of was when he died, and if it is La Mesa, then yes, he should be added.”
Johnson said she and Porath have occasionally “informally crossed paths” in the interim, but their interpersonal conflict escalated over the past few months. Johnson requested a meeting to discuss upkeep and additions at the monument. Sandra Luhnow accompanied her on June 11. Johnson said that Porath seemed displeased that they found concurrent information indicating the man in question was ineligible, as he was not a Heartland resident at the time of his death. She said that Porath replied, “There is no reason not to put his name on there.” And they exchanged words about his desire to quit watering the memorial.
Other HYFD associates offered to pay the water bill. Porath refused, agreeing only to accept nonspecific contributions.
Porath said he requested city action about parking on Nebo Drive, so when the ADA ramp is installed there will also be parking. But he said Johnson’s working with the city without him is “unacceptable” and he is dealing with the city and with the Helix Water District on both issues.
“We own it for God’s sake,” Porath said. “Why are they even going over there (to the City) talking about our property without discussing it with us. All I ask is for an organization, if you are going to come and give me demands, then allow me to work with you.”
He said Johnson has come in with many demands, including a $5,000 cost for the ADA ramp. “Without getting the $5,000, she stormed out,” he said. “I said I would like to negotiate with you in writing and come up with a collaborative effort. Two organizations are a lot better than one. I never got that.”
Luhnow and Johnson concurred Porath misrepresented that meeting, and Johnson never issued a demand for $5,000.
Porath received several letters from people who pleaded the memorial remain unchanged, and the grass and its minimal cost are irrelevant.
Porath said contrary to what people might think money is a crucial issue.
“Our membership base declined and the youth of today are not joiners and don’t want to participate in our organization’s activities,” he said. “The past leadership allowed our facility and equipment to deteriorate and we have other demands that we have had to, and must, meet. Our upstairs hall is in such a sad state that it is adversely impacting our rentals. But, know that our funds are nearly exhausted.”
Johnson made several attempts to get Desiree Herrera, American Legion District 22 commander to help ease negotiations between the two groups, but was turned down, with Herrera refusing to get involved. Herrera has also unanswered several requests for interviews.
VVA President Don Barnard said he has worked with HYFD and gave them permission to use VVA’s Tax ID number to solicit donations for refurbishing the memorial. He said the current contentions are a problem. He said as far as Porath’s views, that he is more focused on the rehabilitation of the VFW site, which is one of three VFW Flag Ship Posts in the country, although merely a guest organization at American Legion Post 282.
“I feel, as do many others, that he (Porath) does not put any importance on the memorial, as they have not kept up on maintaining it in the past as they were supposed to,” Barnard said.
He said Porath had no dealings with restoring the memorial and only wanted to take credit while offering no money, donations or time. Johnson’s receipts confirm there are zero donations from Porath’s VFW 1774 or from Legion Post 282.
“I feel the park should remain the same,” Barnard said. “Drought was taken into consideration when it was reinstalled and the bill is small enough, showing that not much water is being used.”
Barnard said that the ADA is essential, as when he goes out, he uses a wheelchair. He said it was extremely difficult for him to reach the memorial at the rededication, and this is something that needs to be resolved.
“Mr. Porath has been really confrontational whenever it comes to anything that was not his idea,” Barnard said. “For the rededication, he wanted everything done his way so he would get all of the credit, and we (Vietnam Veterans) would get no credit. We told him that would not happen. It is always his way or nothing at all.”
Johnson said she just wants closure and for the memorial to be left alone. She said that the HYFD would always be heavily involved and that the original contract between the city and Legion Post 282 requiring the memorial be maintained in perpetuity means that despite Porath’s “business sense,” he must comply with honoring the monument’s original purpose.
“The original purpose of and direction of the memorial should remain as it was intended in 1970 and be honored,” Johnson said.