The Freedom Monument Veterans Memorial was born out of a chance visit to the Chamber of Commerce office in 2001 by the mother of James Walker, who was killed in Vietnam when his vehicle struck a land mine.
During the course of a conversation with Bob Hatch, then President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, she expressed her fear that, after she died, her son, and others like him, would be forgotten. Bob, a Vietnam veteran hastily replied, “That’s not going to happen. We’ll make sure he is remembered.”
After Walker left Bob’s office, he contacted Dave Cross, who, in addition to being the chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, had grown up in Santa Maria. Dave had some interest in this project as both he and Murvyn Hargraves had enlisted in the Army together after graduating from Santa Maria High School.
Hargraves went to Vietnam and never returned. His family, being distraught, moved back to the East Coast. With his friend gone, Cross was concerned that there was no one left in town who would ever remember his friend, Murvyn Hargraves.
On the other hand, Bob Hatch was born in Lompoc, grew up in Solvang and briefly attended Allan Hancock College after graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in 1964. He was drafted by the U. S. Army and spent two years in the military, most of it in Vietnam, earning commendation medals and three Purple Hearts.
After his Army days, he did odd jobs here and there before beginning a career with various local Chambers of Commerce. Three years after working for the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, he applied for and won the position of President and CEO of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Bob and Dave talked about the memorial project, and with both of them being veterans, they put together a committee and designed a monument. They visited various veteran groups with a scaled model version of the monument to gather support.
The city provided a location for the monument at 600 South McClelland St., in front of the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center. The Chamber paid for the monument structures and plaques. As Bob said, “We cannot and will not let them disappear into the clouds of oblivion.”
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As an added note, though, even though Walker raised a family in the city and is buried in the Santa Maria Cemetery, Santa Maria was not listed as his home of record when the memorial was built. When a former neighbor of his brought the problem to the attention of the Chamber of Commerce, a correction was made and Walker’s name was inscribed on the memorial.
Today, under the leadership of current Chamber president Glenn Morris, the Chamber continues to provide the funding year after year as they add to the monument. The Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, under the guidance of Director Alex Posada, has protected the monument, oversees the monument area and landscaping and supports the ceremonies, which occur in December of every year.
When the Freedom Monument Veterans Memorial opened on Dec. 7, 2001, the area consisted of a fountain, five large structures with plaques representing each branch of the service, plus a dedication plaque.
The Chamber of Commerce provided the majority of the funding for the design and construction, which included six large concrete and tile structures representing each branch of the service, a dedication plaque, a fountain with a mural containing an American Eagle, a flag pole, full landscaping, and seats for veterans, family and members of the community to pay their respects.
Dave Cross told me that since the opening of the Freedom Monument, ceremonies are held each year and dedicated plaques that list the names of Santa Maria Valley casualties from Vietnam, World War II, World War I, Korea, and the War on Terrorism are on display.
“We are the definitive authority on the names of Santa Maria Valley veterans who have given the last full measure of devotion for our country. We have also dedicated plaques honoring Vandenberg Air Force Base, women veterans, POW/MIA, a special plaque for John Smith, and the Order of the Purple Heart. This year, on Dec. 13 at 11 a.m., we will be dedicating a plaque to honor Cold War Veterans who served from 1946-1991. This will be followed by a free lunch inside the youth center. The community is invited to both these events.”
The public is invited to attend the free October “Heart of the Valley” event, scheduled to take place on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 10:15 a.m., at the Santa Maria Public Library, when both Bob Hatch and Dave Cross will be the guest speakers. Since the seats are limited, we suggest that you get there early.