'Never anticipated that many people'

People crowded into the Veterans Hall on Monday night to celebrate Del Norte County's servicemen and women, from those who fought in World War II to those currently in the military.

The Veterans Day Committee that coordinated the dinner and Monday morning's parade planned for 265 chicken-fried steak dinners and wound up serving 290, said committee member Sparky Countess.

"We never anticipated that many people," Countess said, adding that this was the biggest turnout the dinner has ever had. "We gave (people) as much as we had."

In addition to celebrating all of Del Norte's veterans, the dinner gave residents another chance to honor the parade's grand marshals, five World War II veterans and a senior-ranking member of the Hmong Army who fought Communist forces during the Vietnam era.

At the start of the dinner, county Supervisor Roger Gitlin, who emceed the event, handed his microphone to grand marshal Sua Phia Lo, who was a captain in the Hmong Army. Lo addressed the crowd in his own language.

"He said it's an honor to serve the U.S. and thank you for the recognition," said Khou Vue, a fifth-grade teacher at Bess Maxwell Elementary School and a member of the Hmong community.

Michael Poole, a ranger with Redwood National and State Parks, talked about Del Norte's own World War II monument, the National Tribute Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, a combat Marine Corps veteran and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, spoke about the veterans in his family, adding that his uncle was killed in the line of duty in the Philippines during World War II in 1945.

"We have World War II veterans here, heroes, a national treasure," Lopey said. "I don't have any more loved ones or family members that fought in that great war. Thank these men and women that are here tonight, because we got to thank them while we're here and appreciate them because they truly set the standard that we all try to follow."

Lopey, who wore his Army dress blues, also talked about service members who have fought in more recent conflicts and the hardships they and their families face, including struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

"We must never forget the sacrifice of those veterans past, present or future, no matter what kind of medals they deserve or earn," he said. "We owe so much to our veterans and their families. Did you know up to 1,500 veterans pass away every day? Twelve-hundred of those veterans are World War II veterans."

Even though the dinner was free to veterans and their spouses, diners were encouraged to donate money to help pay for the work the VFW did to have the interior of the Veterans Hall painted. The donations will also go toward a project that will install signs welcoming veterans at entrances to Crescent City, Countess said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.