‘MEMORIAL DAY’

May 24, 2009

(VIDEO STORY ABOUT MEMORIAL DAY AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY)

The best way to describe Memorial Day to an Australian – is to say it’s the American version of ANZAC Day without the pub crawl! A time to remember those who have fallen in battle, survived to come home and anyone who has served.

An American Flag

An American Flag

An American tradition on Memorial Day, is to place an American flag at the grave site of past soldiers, sailors and airmen. No small task considering the numbers. At the Military cemetery in Los Angeles an army of volunteers is enlisted to answer the call – usually Scouts, Cubs and Girl Guides.  

From a foreigners point of view – it’s a very powerful and moving sight .. thousands of kids, American flags in hand – following tradition and struggling to push a 50 centimeter long flag into the soil. 

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

I asked a mother dressed as a Scout Leader why are American’s so patriotic? She replied .. ‘American’s come from everywhere, we believe in what this country stands for  – today is about respect, honor and freedom. Australian’s have fought for freedom .. you are just like us’. I agreed. Although, patriotism seems easier for American’s .. the colour combination of ‘red, white and blue’ lends itself to self promotion – unlike Australia’s ‘green and gold’ and that ‘Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi’ chant which makes me wish I was Canadian!

Back to Memorial Day .. the Mum summed the morning up best in five words that followed our conversation – (referring to her son, hand on his shoulder) ‘.. his father is in Iraq’. You may not agree with the decision .. but you support the troops. 

America is at War – Waring at a level not seen since Vietnam.

Walking around the LA Cemetery and looking at the headstones, one name soon blends into another. Many of the men buried there lived long lives – into their 70’s and 80’s .. they fought for their Country .. and they came home. But, what jumps out

21 years old

21 years old

is the unmistakable difference between a new headstone and an old one. The faded weathered lettering .. compared to the black stenciled look. 

Private First Class Jin Su Ong stood out. Ong an American, born in 1987 was just 21 when he died in Iraq this year. It made me think .. in 1987 I was in College living life and at 21, I was traveling the world. What would you have missed out on if your life had ended at 21? No disrespect to the other veterans .. but Ong lived in my time. 

For all the symbolism of today, most of the Scouts who playfully raced to plant the flags at each headstone are too young to understand the meaning of Memorial Day – that’s a good thing. PFC Jin Su Ong was forced to grow up too early.

(BELOW ARE ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN AT THE LOS ANGELES NATIONAL CEMETERY – JUSTIN O’BRIEN, 5/23/09)

 

'The Scouts'

'The Scouts'

 

'Flags On Guard'

'Flags On Guard'

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‘WILDFIRE’

May 14, 2009

(An eyewitness account of the Santa Barbara Wildfire as strong winds threatened to blow the blaze into the City.)

Santa Barbara is best known as a weekend escape from the smog and traffic of Los Angeles. Two hours up Highway One .. SB – ‘White, Quite and Wealthy’ .. I’d never ventured far from the tourist strip until a Wildfire threatened to engulf the City this week.

Employed by CBS News to film, edit and transmit footage for Correspondents Manuel Gallegus and Hari Sreenivasan – it was a ticket to the frontline of the Wildfire.  

'Give me your left shoulder forward!'

'Give me your left shoulder forward!'

Unlike Bushfires (Australian’s call Wildfires, Bushfires) I’d covered in Australia – most notable by their constant hot strong winds, the Santa Barbara fire was different. It rested during the day and came alive with the afternoon breeze, Santa Barbara locals call ‘Sundowners’. In Hawaii it would the name of a cocktail.    

The odd thing about covering fires in the USA is the unlimited access given to the ‘media’. While police road blocks prevented residents from checking on their homes – a flash of a your media credentials in Santa Barbara and you were free to travel anywhere in the fire zone.

In Australia – a Police road block is a road block and no amount of ‘fast’ talking will get you through. Thank God for the First Amendment – Freedom Of The Press.

But it’s a Freedom you don’t abuse. Covering a Malibu Wildfire years ago – a Police Officer waved me through a road block saying: ‘You now have the right to go and get yourself killed!’ And he was right.

It’s not until you drive the winding backstreets, roads, terraces and drives in the foothills of Santa Barbara that you comprehend the City’s wealth. Old money, new money .. does it really matter, it’s still money. 

(A tour through the burnt out remains of two Santa Barbara homes.)

No matter how many Bushfires, Wildfires or House fires I’ve seen – it still amazes me what survives and what melts. I’ve seen letter boxes untouched while to house is reduced to a concrete slab.

'The Burnt-Out Remains Of Two Houses'

'The Burnt-Out Remains Of Two Houses'

 

'Cooked'

'Cooked'

 

 

But, one thing that’s forever constant is the brave determination of fire fighters to save property – houses, cars, boats, sheds .. whatever. Filming from a house threatened by the Wildfire on Day Two – a Fire Captain told me: ‘We’re going to stand here and fight it .. we’re not going to let it get this house.’ They were unforgettable words in the face of frightening uncertainty. We left as the sky turned black or  as we say ‘from day to night’. The house survived albeit a little smoky, but unscratched.      

Here unlies a Wildfire secret not spoken about. The decision on what house will be protected and what house will not. Officially, houses cleared of vegetation are easier to defend than ones surrounded by trees and grass – and professional fire fighters make that judgement. 

Personal involvement, friendship, influence and association also play a part. At one house surrounded by trees and grass in the SB foothills, the owner admitted the firemen were there because they were his friends. Fair or unfair .. if you’re going to risk your life fighting a fire, you’d prefer to do it for a friend. 

When I told this story to a mate whose house is in a known LA City fires zone, he said .. ‘Thanks, I’d better go and make friends with some fire fighters.’