Aptly named Veterans Memorial Hall is able to host the second annual event in a pinch

By Mike Chaldu


When Pam Gnekow was looking for another venue for this year’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day event, an aptly named facility was made available.

And so it was that the second annual Veterans Memorial Day event found itself being held at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall on Wednesday, March 29. 

“I had planned on having the event in Buellton on Avenue of Flags, but with the recent weather, we really couldn’t risk it,” said Gnekow, CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Outreach, which put on the event along with the Cloverlane Foundation.

However, Gnekow had an ally in Alvin Salge, commander of the VFW Post 7139, who was able to secure the Veterans Hall for the event. And on Wednesday, there was a nearly full house in the hall for the ceremony.

“We’ve had a great turnout, and this year we’re ready for it,” Gnekow said. “This is actually the second year we’re doing it. Last year, there was no real ceremony; we just organized a barbecue and let people know about it, and 145 people showed up. We weren’t suprised this year.”

The event was held to observe Vietnam Veterans Day. In 2017, the The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump, designating every March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

The date is significant: According to the vietnamwar50th.com website, it was chosen to be observed in perpetuity as March 29, 1973, was the day United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was disestablished and also the day the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam. In addition, on and around this same day Hanoi released the last of its acknowledged prisoners of war. 

With Art Kaslow as the emcee, the program had a number of speakers, including Buellton Mayor Dave King and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Joan Hartmann. Former Solvang City Councilmember Karen Waite, in her capacity as Solvang Chamber of Commerce military liaison to Vandenberg Space Force Base.

One notable speaker was Marine veteran Steve Baird, the co-founder and president of Echo Group (aka “Band of Brothers”), organization Orcutt-based organization that advocates for local veterans.

In a heartfelt speech, Baird praised the Vietnam veterans as a whole and talked about how 10 years ago, he tried to commit suicide (or, more specifically, suicide by cop), and how, in his lowest moment, he got help from a local veteran.

“I enlisted in the infantry when I was 18. I did a bunch of nothing compared to everything else in this world,” he said. “But about 10 years ago, I was trying to commit suicide by cop. Thankfully, the deputy that took me in that day was an Army veteran. He said ‘Hey, I’m a veteran, I know what you got going on, and you’ll be all right. That was a start.”

Baird emphasized how that affected him and why he concentrates on helping out those who served in Vietnam.

“For me, we talk about ‘The Greatest Generation,’ and respect to those who served in World War II and Korea, but for me personally, my greatest generation has always been the Vietnam vets,” he said.

Baird illustrated his point with a story about a veteran who was in a hole. The Marine veteran relayed the details about how he was spotted in the hole by a couple of superior officers, who throw down a shovel and a bucket, but he’s still in the hole. Then a psychologist and then a psychiatrist come and ask him about his problems, but he’s still in a hole. Then a clergyman comes and prays for him, but he’s still in the hole.

“Then let’s say Esteban walks by,” Baird said, referencing his friend Esteban Valenzuela, who has helped him in the past. “He says ‘what are you doing down there.’ I say ‘I’m in this hole.’ He jumps in the hole, and I freak out. ‘What are you doing? Now we’re both stuck in this hole. And he says ‘Relax. I’ve been in this hole before and I know how to get out.”

The event continued on as Salge, assisted by Gnekow, presented service pins to the many Vietnam vets in the room and then pins to their spouses.

After honoring veterans, the program culminated in recognizing and awarding two Santa Ynez High student who are planning to join the United States Coast Guard after graduation this year.

Tabitha Pearigen and Zachery Bennett are both standouts on the Pirates’ swim team, and they both are joining the Coast Guard to train to become Aviation Survival Technicians (AST), more commonly known as rescue swimmers.

Gerald Chase of the Cloverlane Foundation, a group that assists veterans, awarded Tabitha and Zachery each $2,000 scholarships.

Chase praised the students’ decision on their future.

“I’ve been giving out these scholarships for years, and I can tell you these two have made an amazing choice,” he said. “They were fabulous in school in academics … in sports … in ethics. They could have gone to any university in the country. They chose the Coast Guard.”

The two about-to-graduate seniors were appreciative of their awards.

Tabitha expressed her appreciation for the scholarship and to her family, friends, and community for their support. 

She also talked about how grateful she will be to share the experience with Zachery.

“He’s one of my best friends and I’m extremely grateful to do it with him,” she said. “We will ride the plane together to New Jersey, we will ride the bus together to Cape May. 

“We’re still working on that secret code where we can tell one another ‘I want to go home right now,'” she said laughing, then saying, “We both promised each other we won’t let the other quit.”

Zachery spoke of his excitement for the next step of his life.

“I’ll be leaving for New Jersey on July 11 for eight weeks, and I find this to be a great and special opportunity,” he said. “I am excited that me and Tabitha get to do it together and the recruiter said something like that [letting two friends go into training together] is a rare thing, so I’m grateful for that.”

After the ceremonies wrapped up, the attendees were able to chow down on a free barbecue lunch courtesy of the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Elks Lodges and listen to live music from the band Bill Agin & Territorial Law.