Angel Castillo, commander of American Legion Post 434, removes overgrown grass and weeds from the sidewalk of World War II veteran Ernie Miranda's home in Chula Vista, Calif. Castillo, Legionnaire Chuck Camarato, right, were among two dozen veterans cleaning up the property on March 3. (Photo by Henry Howard)

Veterans, servicemembers rehab World War II vet’s dilapidated property

More than two dozen volunteers, ranging from active-duty servicemembers in their 20s to veterans in their 70s, rallied to rehabilitate the property of a World War II veteran March 3 in Chula Vista, Calif.

“I don’t even have words to describe what’s going on here, it’s so appreciated,” said Michelle Miranda, daughter of Navy veteran Ernie Miranda, who is 94. “I am so happy that it is being done. My father — his mind is blown. He’s skeptical in general. But to see this happening is amazing. He’s from that old school where you don’t ask for anything. You don’t ask for handouts.”

Volunteers removed debris from the yard, pulled large overgrowth of weeds that had decimated the lawn and performed general cleanup during the daylong project spearheaded by The American Legion and U.S. 4 Warriors. Afterward, a large dumpster along the curb was completely full.

“It’s a hoarding situation,” said Chuck Camarato, Department of California sergeant-at-arms and a member of American Legion Post 731 in Linda Vista. “He just got too old to do things. His support network is limited. If it weren’t for veterans organizations, this is how he would have lived his final days.

“It’s great to see our young military members out here, giving up their Saturday, to help a veteran. It says a lot about them.”

The project began when Victor Graff noticed a leak along the wall he shares with Miranda, his neighbor of more than 50 years.

“I didn’t realize how bad it had become because I had worked on cleaning up our shared side,” said Graff, a member of American Legion Post 492. “I got sick and was in Balboa Hospital on and off for a while. After that, I noticed water was leaking through my wall. When I told Ernie about it, he said the sewer line in his bathroom was broken.”

That’s what prompted Graff to reach out to nonprofits. After several unsuccessful attempts with other organizations, he called Tony Stewart about three months ago. “That’s when things started popping,” Graff said.

Stewart, who lives in Chula Vista, is an American Legion member and a founder of Us4Warriors.

“Living here you hear about people who need help,” Stewart said. “Vic contacted me about a distressed property of a World War II vet. The moment I heard that my ears perked up. This is taking care of one of our own. We have to make sure that this gets done. We’re out to help people.”

A team began to survey the property, meet with the family, solicit volunteers, acquire the proper permits and other preliminary legwork that led to the transformation’s first phase. Once the outside is cleaned up, volunteers will assess the inside of the home and work with vendors on repairs.

“The American Legion connection in the area is what solidified the deal,” Stewart said. “The family felt comfortable with The American Legion and Us4Warriors is well-known in this area.”

Stewart is a former commander of District 22. “That’s the beauty of The American Legion,” he said. “The American Legion has the best reach and warm handshakes with other groups so that we can make things happen and do what’s really important.”

Camarato underscored the importance of veterans organizations working together.

“In today’s day and age, partnerships go a long way,” he said. “It’s one of the best ways to tackle issues that are facing us. I work closely with other organizations like Us4Warriors. Every organization is taxed to the maximum. So when you work together, you actually enhance your resources and your ability to do larger projects that you might not be able to do.”

Angel Castillo, commander of Post 434, saw the property for the first time when he arrived to work in the yard.

“We’re here to help and anything we can do, we will do our best to help out,” Castillo said. “It’s a surprise that it has gotten to this stage. But we have to understand that sometimes conditions — physical or mental — come into play and this can happen. But it takes the community to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this gentleman needs help.’ That’s what being a veteran means — continuing to serve.”

Lisa Miranda, the granddaughter of Ernie, says his health is good, given his age. His spirits were lifted when the team of volunteers showed up.

“He loves everything about today, he’s amazed about how many people have come out,” she said, noting her grandfather was looking outside from a window. “He made a joke about ‘They are here for the food.’ And I said, ‘No, they are here out of the goodness of their hearts.’”