Legion helps save Vietnam veteran’s memorial from removal

For more than 50 years, a memorial honoring the life and service of Vietnam War veteran Jim B. Robison has stood tall in the desert in Ocotillo Wells, Calif. From their living room window, Elmo and Nancy Robison could see the memorial that was dedicated to their son, who was killed Feb. 7, 1966.

In January 2017, a single complaint was lodged, citing the First Amendment. This jeopardized the memorial’s future because at the time it sat on public land owned by the Ocotillo Wells Airport. San Diego County, which oversees the airport, considered moving the memorial to another location, which drew an outcry from local residents.

Robison’s nephew, Tom Lemmon, and Ocotillo Wells resident Sherri Kukla led the movement to save the memorial. Along the way, American Legion District 22 of California and First Liberty Institute joined in to save the memorial and preserve the remembrance of a fallen servicemember.

“We firmly believe that the greatest gift that we can give our fallen warriors, the men and women they served with, and the families they leave behind is the gift of remembrance,” District 22 Commander Chris Yates said. “The American Legion has a big commitment to make sure that we preserve the memories and the incidents of our associations in the great wars. We’re fulfilling that obligation by making sure that we’re preserving the memory of the men and women, like Jim Robison, who gave their lives for this country.”

On Dec. 1, American Legion Post 853 officially purchased the quarter-acre parcel of land where the memorial sits. Robison’s family members are pleased with the outcome.

Lemmon said the memorial is visible from the family homestead.

“It’s something my grandparents (Elmo and Nancy Robison) looked at every day,” he recalled. “I know it gave them a lot of peace. Literally from their house they could see the Gold Star flag (in the window) and see the cross just behind it.”

Lemmon, who was not quite 7 when his uncle was killed, said he remembers Robison well. He went to Vietnam around Christmas Day 1965 and was killed the following February.

“I have lots of memories of him,” said Lemmon, a Marine veteran. “He was athletic, smart and loved the Army like crazy.

“After he was killed, I wanted to join the military.”

Evon DeLauder is Robison’s older sister and Lemmon’s mother. She remembers her brother as being very sweet and athletic. “He would put Tom on his shoulders and run around with him. Tom loved it.”

Robison lived with his sister and her husband when he was 16 and she was 19 in Florida. “He’d come through the living room, hear the music on the radio, grab me and we’d start dancing.”

Shortly before leaving for Vietnam, Robison visited his sister and her family in Oxnard, Calif. He bought presents for Tom and his sister. “Everyone prayed for him,” DeLauder recalls. “He said, ‘I am not afraid to die. Pray that I am not captured or maimed.'”

DeLauder had written him three letters and received one from Robison. He concluded the letter with, “I’ll be home soon,” she remembers. “His death was very hard on us.”

Robison carried a book by Billy Graham during the war. “It had to do with life after death,” said DeLauder, who kept the book and recently passed it on to her daughter. “He accepted the Lord and in the book he underlined every passage that had to do with life after death. It wasn’t a gruesome thing. It was a beautiful thing.”

Now living in Virginia, DeLauder hasn’t seen the memorial in years. “It’s a beacon of life,” she said. “He’s still alive in our hearts.”

Post 853 members will work with the family to care for the memorial.

“Any memorial that represents or even associates itself with a fallen veteran or any veteran is a memorial to all of us,” Post 853 Commander Lee Quarcelino said, noting the post voted unanimously to undertake the project. “We all paid the price. That’s what the Legion is about; helping community, children, the nation.”

The memorial sits on a small hill in a barren desert, often used by dune buggy enthusiasts. The memorial’s concrete and brick base supports a metal cross, which is about 20 feet high.

Such peaceful remembrance is especially important to Dale Jones, Post 853 second vice commander and chaplain.

“A memorial allows us to remember the sacrifices, the past,” Jones said. “As we move forward in the future years, future generations – the Great War, World War II, Vietnam – all the conflicts grow further and further apart. History can be lost. But these memorials, they are that moment in time where you can take the quiet time to remember those who have fallen and given the ultimate sacrifice. This memorial is a place where we can go and recognize those who have paid the ultimate price.”

The Legion’s acquisition of the land concludes a lengthy period when local advocates, public officials and others joined forces to save the memorial.

Kukla is a co-founder of S&S Off Road Magazine. The land around the memorial is popular among off-road enthusiasts.

When Kukla learned that San Diego County was quietly considering removing the memorial she feared Robison family members, veterans, off-road participants and others would lose their place of quiet remembrance. She posted a message on her magazine’s Facebook page and started an online petition, which generated an outpouring of support for the memorial. The tight-knit off-road community immediately got involved, spreading the word and contacting local lawmakers.

“I was overwhelmed,” Kukla said, noting that other veterans and civilians have had their ashes scattered at the site. “Everybody was really upset that it might come down. Everyone feels like it’s their memorial.”

Lemmon contacted county supervisors and worked with them for over a year, while also getting California Rep. Duncan Hunter involved to assist with the land transfer from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Last summer, Hunter sent a letter to the FAA requesting it consider a request from the county to sell the land to a private party to keep the memorial in place.

With Lemmon’s and Kukla’s involvement and commitment, the pieces started falling into place to save the memorial. With the county and congressional staffs engaged, the Legion and the legal team joined the effort.

First Liberty Institute senior counsel Roger Byron worked with the Legion, Robison’s family and others to secure the deal.

“The memorial will continue to stand for years to come in honor of the fallen American solider it was erected to commemorate,” Byron said. “In my mind, the Legion rode in on a white horse and ensured that the honor of the fallen American servicemember — as well as the sanctity of the memorial erected to honor him — would continue to stand for years to come.”

Byron is a Navy veteran and member of The American Legion.

“All veterans memorials should be honored, and all veterans memorials should be preserved,” he said. “This isn’t Arlington National Cemetery, but it’s the next best thing. Fallen servicemembers can’t be here to defend themselves. They’re not here to defend the memorials that honor them so we should do it for them.”

Lemmon praised Byron for his role. “He had an amazing compassion and a desire to do the right thing.”

Robison’s nephew is thankful for the support from the Legion, First Liberty and others.

“My goal was to save the cross but I hadn’t given it much thought to what that meant,” Lemmon said. “I really liked the connection to my uncle — who had an American Legion post named after him in Ocotillo Wells. I really like how The American Legion’s mission is to support veterans and their families.”

Now, the memorial will remain in place where it has been for more than a half century.

“It’s a low-key memorial, something my family looked at every day,” Lemmon said. “It gave us a gentle reminder of Jim Robison. But we saw fairly quickly that others latched onto it for memorials for their families, which is a big part of the story. While it will forever be known as the Jim B. Robison Memorial, it’s really everyone’s.”