IRVINE — Official Department of Defense casualty records contain errors regarding about 3% of American servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Orange County veterans advocates.
Whether it's a misspelled name, an incorrect age or wrong date of death, the documents have incorrect indentifying facts about an estimated 171 military service men and women.
"You can imagine that it's hard enough to lose a loved one in the war," said Irvine resident Pam Rogan, "and how painful it is for the family to fly all the way out [to a memorial] and their son's or daughter's name is spelled wrong."
Rogan is a board member of the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial, a permanent memorial to every American lost in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom set to be dedicated Sunday by the city and Gold Star Families and Friends of the Fallen.
And members of the board state with confidence that the 5,714 names etched into the granite sentinels do not contain a single mistake.
"It really was a labor of love," memorial director Dale Jelinek said of the thousands of hours that went into research and transcontinental flights to veterans' hometowns to double check those letters with librarians, school administrators and grateful parents.
Members also scrutinized military records, newspaper clippings, online references and other sources to keep errors from being carved in stone.
Unlike many veterans' memorials, the tribute at Northwood Community Park does not display the division or rank alongside a name — just the age at the time of death.
"This is not about rank, this is about them as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters," Jelinek said. "From the very outset, the goal has been to recognize that this spans all generations."
And many of those displayed are men and women in their late teens and early 20s.
"These young guys are dying right now at 18 years old and not really considered men yet," said retired Marine Bill Sandlin, first vice commander for the American Legion Orange County. "It's kind of sad, but I really appreciate what Irvine has done to help [the memorial] happen."
A makeshift fixture of photographs and hand-written messages tacked to wooden posts has been displayed annually from around the time of Memorial Day to Independence Day since 2003 at Northwood Park.
The city of Irvine approved a permanent memorial, along with $150,000 to help build it, in 2009. While the city had asked the board for compromises regarding size and height for safety reasons, long-time advocates were afraid permanent structures would hurt the grassroots spirit of the makeshift memorial.
"We were worried about that because it was so special to have those posts with pictures," Rogan said. "But there was so much heart that went into this that I don't think so … it's beautiful and so simple. It's perfect."
The five sentinels, softly illuminated at night to be reminiscent of candlelight, carry about 350 names upon each of the four granite panels. Seventeen panels have been filled, and three blank panels remain.
No one hopes to have to fill in the empty spaces but as the conflicts continue, it's nearly inevitable that they will one day be etched with names of the dead.
"This memorial will not be completed until after the conflict is over and all the men and women have returned home safely," said Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang.
Plans for the memorial have allowed for an expansion to place additional panels along the low circular stone walls, if need be.
"In standing here, looking at these panels, I find myself personally inspired," Kang said, reminded of his own service to South Korea in the early 1970s. "Their sacrifice will forever be remembered by the public and whoever comes to see this memorial."
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