Cindy McVay was volunteering at a Nevada County Fair booth shared by the Friends of Nevada County Military and the Blue Star Mothers of America a few years back when a Vietnam veteran stopped by and the two struck up a conversation.
As they discussed the Friends of Nevada County Military’s monthly packing parties, which send care packages to Nevada County servicemen and women, the man told McVay that he remembered receiving packages from home during his own military service some 40 years ago.
“I used to get cookies,” the man told McVay.
“Are you from here?” she asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Then I used to send you cookies!” she said. “I was part of Operation Cookie!”
“Operation Cookie” might have been McVay’s earliest foray in showing support for American soldiers serving abroad, but her connection to the armed services stretches deep into her family roots and continues to this day. Her grandfather was a World War I veteran. One uncle served in World War II, while another saw action in Korea.
“And my son, Christopher James Sr., served six years in the Air Force, one year in the Army National Guard and then five full years in the U.S. Army,” she said, explaining her current connection to both Friends of the Nevada County Military and to the Sierra Nevada Chapter No. 12 of the Blue Star Mothers, for which she serves as president.
In March, the Blue Star Mothers dedicated Grass Valley’s Brighton Street Overpass as the “Gold Star Memorial Bridge,” which honored three fallen Marines — Lance Cpl. John “JT” Lucente, Cpl. Sean Stokes and Lance Cpl. Adam Strain — and capped a two-year trek through layers of governmental bureaucracy that fellow members said took every bit of McVay’s tenacity to become a reality.
“She carried this project through,” said fellow Blue Star Mother Kathy Atkinson. “Our chapter had a lot of people who assisted, but Cindy was the driving force to get this done.”
26 months, start to finish
The idea would be to honor five Nevada County military members who gave all in service to their country by placing plaques bearing their names in both Truckee and Grass Valley. In addition to the trio memorialized by the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, Marines 1st Lt. Nathan Krissoff and Sgt. Phillip A. Bocks were honored by the Blue Star Mothers with plaques dedicated at the Veterans Building in Truckee.
But even though the Blue Star Mothers deemed such a dedication as a good idea, making it happen was another matter. McVay and her team reached out to Nevada County Supervisor Nate Beason and Congressman Doug LaMalfa for assistance.
“From the first time I walked into his office — Jan. 21, 2011 — and asked him what I needed to do to get this done, (Beason) helped make this happen,” McVay said. “He was the one I originally went to; he was the one who guided me through this. He and Congressman LaMalfa were very, very supportive.
“I’m sure Nate is glad it’s all done because every time something happened, creating a ‘traffic jam,’ he got a call from me looking for whoever I needed to hear from (to keep things moving).”
McVay said she and Atkinson worked directly with an aide, Jennifer Horne, from then-State Senator LaMalfa’s office, gathering and delivering information back and forth via “tons of emails, tons of phone calls” on the renaming of the overpass. Meanwhile, they began pursuing the plaque dedication in Truckee, working with Town Manager Tony Lashbrook through various liability issues to select the site.
Matt Easley, a representative from LaMalfa’s office, worked with the resolution on the floor, McVay said. The bill had to pass the state senate and assembly, along with the transportation and appropriation committees.
“Long story short,” McVay said, “there again was an issue because the person we were trying to get a hold of, who we were told to get a hold of, was no longer there and nobody knew what I was talking about. Nate got me in touch with Caltrans in Marysville, and we started working with them down there.”
The Truckee dedication was the culmination of months of negotiating; finding the appropriate location; fundraising to cover the cost to purchase the plaques and having them installed with the help of two local Truckee businesses. Pat Davison of the Contractors Association of Truckee-Tahoe took the idea to a board meeting, and Bill Kelly, of Kelly Brothers Painting Inc., decided to take it on at no charge, McVay said.
“When I met him the first time, he had no clue what he’d volunteered for,” McVay said. “Then when he found out, he was deeply honored he had offered to do this.”
A local veteran, Brady Thayer, asked about the plaques when he saw them in the Kelly Brothers office. The Tahoe Daily Tribune reported that Thayer, who served in the Army and was deployed to Iraq at the same time as the two Marines, asked if he could assist in the installation, saying it would be an honor.
Krissoff gave his life Dec. 9, 2006, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, from wounds sustained while conducting combat operations as a counterintelligence officer when he was injured in a blast in Anbar province, Iraq. He was 25.
A Truckee native, Krissoff was a Williams College graduate who put his international affairs career on hold to join the Marines in 2004. He attended elementary and middle school in Reno before attending a California prep school. Krissoff has received the “Navy and Marine Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device for Valor” and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.
Bocks perished Nov. 9, 2007, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He was 28. While returning from a meeting with village elders in Nuristan province, Bocks and fellow soldiers were attacked by militants wielding rocket-propelled grenades. Eight other Americans were wounded and three Afghan soldiers killed in the ambush.
Bocks moved with his family from Michigan to Truckee when he was in seventh grade, attended schools in Truckee through the 11th grade and joined the Marines in 2000. For three years, Bocks was stationed at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, Calif.
“On Nov. 3, 2012, we dedicated (the plaques) at Truckee’s Veterans Hall, right behind the flag pole on a rock wall,” McVay said. “It overlooks the whole town of Truckee. What more of a perfect spot for that to be placed?”
Giving them a Gold Star
“Once we got the dedication in Truckee, I knew we were close (to achieving the bridge dedication in Grass Valley),” McVay said. “We just needed to be a pain in somebody’s side at that moment.”
As they came down the backstretch of the project, with the renaming of the bridge approved, McVay and the Blue Star Mothers were blessed by a donation that helped allay any anxiety over having enough funding to make the dedication happen.
“We already had money to purchase plaques — numerous military organizations in town supported that — but a member of one of the organizations … a Vietnam veteran and Marine, he and his wife gave us a donation ($1,200) that covered the total purchase of the plaques,” McVay said with tears brimming. “This is just very dear to me, and what they did helped us so much to get this project done because I think we would have been short of funds. I don’t know if we’d been able to get the plaques at that stage in time. It was a struggle. I just wanted to get these young men honored.”
An anonymous donor took care of the cost of installation of the plaques, McVay said, which were put in place Jan. 21. In addition to the memorials, four new street signs declaring the overpass as “Gold Star Memorial Bridge” were installed on Highway 20 and on Brighton Street. And on March 30, in front of a crowd of more than 100 people, Beason and LaMalfa unveiled the signs, followed by the unveiling of the plaques by John Lucente’s mother, Kristine Webb-Mason, and 7-year-old brother, Jake Mason.
“First of all, the reason we have that Gold Star Memorial is because of the Blue Star Mothers and Cindy,” Beason said. “They are the reason we have that. Those of us who were in a position to help did what we could, and things turned out as they should, but it was because the Blue Star Mothers worked their tails off and did the hard work. ‘Community’ is the right word for it. There were a lot of people in the community who came together to support it. I know Grass Valley, Nevada City and Truckee have always been very supportive, engaged and fully aware of the sacrifice our military members make and have made.”
Beason, who was a naval officer for 30 years, rose to the rank of captain. He served on eight ships, serving as commanding officer on three of them in addition to commanding two shore activities. According to his biography, in 1993, he commanded a seven-ship international naval task force involved in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. He is a veteran of Vietnam and made three deployments to the Middle East in command of warships.
“I am proud of it. I’d do it again,” Beason said of his own service. “I think the military is a very honorable, upright and ethical profession. The Constitution is pretty clear about what our country’s priorities are, and national defense is right up there. One of the words you hear all the time in the military is ‘duty.’ You don’t hear a lot of that word outside the military. It’s not about a sense of reward, not a sense of personal glory … it’s just a sense of duty.”
He said it’s important to remember those who gave all by honoring them with memorials, such as with his own colleagues on the Vietnam War Memorial.
“I have two very close friends who are on that wall,” Beason said. “I get a twinge just thinking about it and about them.”
John Lucente died Nov. 16, 2005, from wounds sustained by an enemy hand grenade explosion while conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Steel Curtain in Ubaydi, Iraq. He was 19. A 2004 Bear River High School graduate, Lucente enlisted in the Marine Corps’ delayed entry program as a junior in high school. (See related story, page A1).
Sean Stokes, a U.S. Marine corporal from Lake of the Pines, was killed July 30, 2007, after being injured by enemy fire in Al Anbar province, Iraq. He was 24 years old. A 2001 graduate of Bear River High School, Stokes was on his third tour in Iraq. Stokes fought insurgents with his fellow Marines in Fallujah even while hiding shrapnel wounds on his arms and legs, said a writer embedded with Stokes’ platoon in 2004. His platoon and its role in the fight for Fallujah is the subject of a History Channel documentary, “Shootout, D-Day Fallujah,” which first aired in summer 2005. Stokes was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in 2008.
Adam Strain, a 2003 graduate of Nevada Union High School, was killed by small arms fire Aug. 4, 2005, in Ar Ramidi, Iraq. He was 20. Strain lived in Smartsville with his family before joining the Marines after high school. While at Nevada Union, he played defensive end on the Miners football team. Prior to joining the Marines, Strain worked as a courtesy clerk at SPD Market in Grass Valley.
“We had to get this done,” McVay said, “because I do not want these Marines ever forgotten for their sacrifice. They gave the ultimate sacrifice. They gave their lives to fight for our country.”
It was back at Nevada Union High School, when her former schoolmates and family friends were being sent to Vietnam, that McVay said she began to feel a deep, direct connection to those fighting the war is southeast Asia.
“I did have friends over there, and they did make it home,” she said. “One came home with what they’d now recognize as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder. He came home with problems. I could see it because he was very, very close to our family. I’d known this young man for quite a while. The first time came home he was OK, but you could see a difference and you just knew he had seen a lot. And then he volunteered for a second tour.”
She heard word of a group getting together to send cookies to the soldiers serving.
“We got together at a church on Alta Street — I want to say once a month, but I’m not sure. We all would bring hundreds of cookies, wrapped in aluminum foil and put them in 3-pound coffee cans. We’d pack them full of cookies, wrap them up, ship them off, and the boys would get them when they’d get their mail call over there.
“My friends over there, their names were on the list … I had so much fun doing that.”
A few decades later, she heard word about a similar effort for soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. She joined up with the Friends of Nevada County Military and helped send off care packages each month.
“I remember when I went to the first packing party,” she said. “They’d have this pile in front of you. Looking at the box and looking at all this stuff, you’re thinking there’s no way it’s all going to fit. But now, with the years of practice, the boxes go lickity split. My best friend’s son, he’s deployed to Afghanistan. I sent him his last box because he’s going to be processed and coming home. Rice Krispies treats, potato chips, corn nuts, gum … I shoved that box full of everything I could imagine to make his last month there pleasant. It just makes me feel so good for what we’ve done.”
In recent years, in working with Blue Star Mothers, McVay has helped clean and decorate the plaques honoring veterans on other bridges throughout western Nevada County. On Memorial Day, walking and biking tours will be offered to the public to learn about the veterans memorialized (see accompanying story, page A7). It was while cleaning those plaques that she made a few more connections that hit home.
She was cleaning the plaque for Lt. Col. Bruce Allen Jensen at the Highway 20/49 bridge at Empire Street in Grass Valley when something clicked.
“I just wonder if that’s Doug’s dad?” she said. “After cleaning the plaques for the very first time, we got a ‘thank you’ from his daughter for cleaning the plaque. Then we got an email from the man who had married his widow.
“It all kind of revolved around being a small community. He was killed in action in 1967. His son, Doug, was one year behind me in school. I did not know this was his father until I cleaned that plaque. Through all of this, his son, Doug, and I have reconnected on Facebook. Then I found out the man who married his mom was one of my teachers when I was at Hennessy School.”
It’s the community’s support for their members of the military that has led McVay to make such connections. During a recent chat, she and Atkinson encouraged others to show their own support and join in the fun by attending a packing party — the third Tuesday of every month — hosted by the Friends of Nevada County Military.
“My son is home safe. Kathy’s son is home safe,” McVay said. “But we still have mothers with children still serving.”
Contact Managing Editor Brian Hamilton via email at email@example.com or by phone at 530-477-4249. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
“We had to get this done because I do not want these Marines ever forgotten for their sacrifice. They gave the ultimate sacrifice. They gave their lives to fight for our country.”