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Friday, Nov 29 2013 07:37 PM

Highway to be named for veterans advocate

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    In this file photo from March 8, 2012, Vietnam veteran Vernon Valenzuela spots a very familiar face among the crowd as he enters the Bell Tower Club: longtime friend and fellow veteran advocate Don Waak. The meeting of the Veteran's Justice Project was also a surprise tribute to Valenzuela. At left is Valenzuela's wife, Lise Valenzuela. Vernon Valenzuela died March 26, 2012, at age 63.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Sometimes saying goodbye doesn't seem like enough.

That's how friends of Vernon Valenzuela were feeling following the death of the longtime local veterans advocate in March 2012.

Valenzuela had spent most of his life helping struggling combat veterans, and many believed something more needed to be done to keep his memory alive.

Next month their efforts will be rewarded when a section of Golden State Highway -- from F Street to Q Street -- is designated "Vernon P. Valenzuela Memorial Highway."

"We just wanted to do something to honor him that is befitting his service and dedication to the veteran community," said Jenny Frank, the office manager at the Bakersfield Vet Center, the veterans advocacy organization Valenzuela was instrumental in founding in 2009.

Appropriately, the section of highway chosen to honor Valenzuela passes in front of the Vet Center, which many consider his crowning achievement.

The highway designation process was lengthy as the reasons behind the effort had to be presented in writing to the state legislature for approval. That task fell to Frank and Valenzuela's wife of more than 30 years, Lise Valenzuela.

The bill was ultimately carried by state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in August.

But there was more to do. All costs of the signs, their installation and maintenance must be borne by private sources. By law, the state cannot contribute materials or labor to the effort.

Air Force veteran Randall Dickow, a local attorney and longtime friend of Valenzuela, was asked to raise $6,000, enough to purchase, install and maintain the two green-and-white highway signs.

It turned out to be the easiest fundraising effort Dickow has ever undertaken.

"It took one day," he said, smiling. "Once people heard what the money would be used for, it was over."

Dickow recalled meeting Valenzuela for the first time when they were members of the Associated Veteran Students at Bakersfield College. Valenzuela had joined the Army in 1966 and returned home from Vietnam in the late 1960s after being wounded in combat.

The young man's experiences had awakened in him a deep concern for the many veterans who struggled after coming home. He would go on to earn a degree in counseling, which he used in his lifelong pursuit to help and advocate for the rights of veterans, especially those who suffered from PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Valenzuela became active at the state and national level with the Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans organizations. He lobbied in the nation's capital for veterans benefits and for the recognition of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange as a cancer cause. He even returned with a recovery team to Vietnam to bring home the remains of U.S. servicemen.

"I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with Vernon, to have stood beside him in his efforts to found the Vet Center," Frank said.

No one, she said, has done more for military veterans in Kern County and across the country.

Recently, someone told Frank that he considers Valenzuela "the godfather of veterans' causes." It's an appropriate title, she said.

A ceremony to unveil the new highway designation is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Bakersfield Vet Center, 1110 Vernon P. Valenzuela Memorial Highway.

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