• WHAT: Chances on two Ford Fiestas are being sold to raise funds for the annual Memorial Day Weekend event at Woodward Park.
• WHERE: Phil Waterford’s Ford Mercury & Exotic Cars, 555 N. Main St., Manteca
Memorial Day used to be just a three-day weekend for Phil Waterford.
It’s not any more.
And it’s all because of a persistent Vietnam War veteran four years ago who provided the Ford dealership owner with “the privilege” of meeting “incredible men and women” who have served America.
That Vietnam War veteran was Pastor Mike Dillman of the Place of Refuge. He was on a mission to make sure that not only are those serving in the Global War on Terror know that their efforts were appreciated but that all veterans were properly thanked and remembered for their sacrifices. Dillman enlisted Waterford to serve as master of cermonies for the first Woodward Park staging of the Memorial Day Weekend: Not Forgotten effort.
By the time that weekend was over, it had changed Waterford’s life.
“I was truly amazed at what these men had gone through,” Waterford recalled as he listened intently to each soldier as they told their individual stories. “It became clear to me that freedom is not free.”
Being in the presence of men such as World War II Battle of the Bulge veteran Earl “The Pearl” Watson, Vietnam veteran Bob Gutierrez, Iraq War veteran Chris Braley, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis and hearing their stories over a dinner at the start of the weekend brought him to tears. Then on Saturday, Waterford was so overcome with emotion that he struggled to get through the narration of the patriotic program at the Button Avenue church.
“It hit me that everything we have (in this country) is because of men like them,” Waterford said.
That night, Waterford couldn’t sleep. After asking for God’s help, he determined what he had to do. He called Dillman and asked to meet him before the sun would come up on the next day’s activities at Woodward Park.
Waterford said the Lord told him to help three people. Two wounded warriors he was to give cash - Braley and Jose Jaurequi, another injured Iraqi war veteran who had suffered extensive burns. The car - the first new 2010 Ford Fusion his dealership had taken delivery of - went to Gutierrez. It was only after he had made the decision to give Gutierrez a free car that he learned the former Manteca resident who now resides in Texas was a traveling minister who had asked his friends to pray that his car that was in serious need of repairs would make it to and from California. Gutierrez suffered severe damage to his vocal chords from a grenade in Vietnam.
Since that weekend in 2009, Waterford has vowed never to take for granted what the men and women who wear this nation’s uniform have done and are doing for him, his neighbors, his community and the country.
“Every soldier I thank for their service says the same exact thing every time: ‘I was just doing my job’,” Waterford said.
Dillman noted that that Manteca’s Memorial Weekend event not only helps people to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice but it has worked as a public way to thank those who are still alive for their service. The Manteca event is the largest of its kind on the West Coast and has attracted over 10,000 people each year to Woodward Park.
The day includes the placement of more than 5,000 crosses remembering those who have died so far in the Global War on Terror, the Traveling Tribute, a soldier’s theater, ceremonies, flyovers, presentations, and a list of other activities including a car show, entertainment, and more. This year it will include the dedication of honor roll panels listing the names of nearly 1,000 men from Manteca who served in World War II.
The day is capped with aerial fireworks to celebrate the safe return home of soldiers.
It costs a lot of money to stage the event. Upwards of $60,000 is needed to cover expenses, according to Dillman.
That’s where Waterford comes into the picture.
Last year, he made a vehicle available for the committee to sell chances on to raise money. Waterford figures that wasn’t enough. So this year his dealership is providing two Ford Fiestas with each having a one in 250 chance of being won.
Tickets are $100 each and are available at Waterford’s Ford dealership on North Main Street.
The dealership is also accepting other donations on behalf of the Welcome Home Heroes Foundation that is the non-profit committee staging the annual event.