Vets prepare Manteca Memorial Day display

RIVERBANK -- National Guard Staff Sgt. Mike Gamino didn't think twice when he was asked to help paint more than 5,000 crosses to honor those who have died while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Along with 17 other war veterans, Gamino, 41, grabbed a paintbrush and got to work building a display for next month's Memorial Day activities.

"It's a form of remembrance," said Gamino, a Salida man who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It's also a way for us to come together and bond; like a brotherhood."

About 10 other volunteers joined the veterans Saturday at Bruce Gordo's Riverbank home to paint the crosses. Each one is meant to represent a soldier, Marine or sailor who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The crosses will be a tribute to sacrifice, but their display also will be a stark reminder of the number of lives lost, said Gordo, who served in the Marines in Vietnam.

"When I saw (the number of crosses), I started crying," Gordo, 60, said. "I wasn't prepared to see so many."

As of Friday, 5,434 Americans have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department.

The crosses will be displayed starting May 29 at Manteca's Woodward Park as part of a series of Memorial Day weekend events. They will be set up to resemble the rows of graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gordo said he never was much for Memorial Day festivities, but painting the crosses helps him heal and forms a connection with Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans.

"I feel like I'm giving back to a younger generation who is going through the same things we did," Gordo said. "I just really hope people come down to participate in the event. That would mean a lot to us."

In 2006, a similar memorial in the Bay Area suburb of Lafayette drew criticism from military families. About 400 crosses were erected on a hillside with a large sign reading: "In Memory of 2,839 U.S. Troops Killed In Iraq."

The memorial offended some people, particularly those who had loved ones in the military and saw it as a sign of disrespect to their service. Some saw the Lafayette crosses as reminders of what might happen to their family members serving in combat.

Since then, others across the country have built their own monuments to the fallen soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some, like the group in Riverbank, are expressing their gratitude to the troops. They don't want today's soldiers to wait years for a memorial, as those who served in Vietnam did.

"A lot of soldiers that have served feel forgotten," said National Guard Cpl. Alex Smith of Modesto, who served in Afghanistan. "This is just a way to let everyone know they're not forgotten."

Gordo's son, Jason Gordo, helped organize the volunteers as a tribute to his dad. He said it might take them a couple of weekends to paint each cross white, but they will be done on time.

"What better group of people to honor fallen soldiers than the veterans themselves," he said.

Clyne Keener, an Oakdale resident who served in the Korean War, stood alongside the other veterans Saturday painting about 1,500 crosses. He said the bond between war veterans goes beyond generations.

"It doesn't matter what war you've been in; it's all the same," Keener, 79, said. "For every cross painted, some G.I. gave his life. It's really a moving experience."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.