Each year, Veterans Day honors all of those who have served the country, thanking them for their sacrifices.
For most Americans, it’s a day to thank their family and friends for those sacrifices, as only roughly 18 million Americans, or about 7% of the population, are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 data.
For the veterans themselves, it’s a day to look back on their service, remembering why they chose to serve.
The Santa Clarita Valley is home to thousands of veterans, with the more than 1,500 bricks at the Veterans Historical Plaza in Newhall a recognition of those men and women.
Army S/Sgt. Alvin D. Larsen, World War II
Dec. 7, 1941, “A day that will live in infamy,” as Roosevelt famously once described it, was the day Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,300. But for WWII veteran Alvin D. Larsen, it was simply his 19th birthday.
“War was declared on my 19th birthday, and three months later, I joined the military,” the Saugus resident recalled.
A farm boy from Utah, Larsen was following in his brother’s footsteps, who was already stationed in Europe at the time, and soon found himself part of the Army’s 172nd General Hospital unit en route to the South Pacific.
Larsen took on the role of medic, along with a truck driver, an “ambulance chaser” and secretary for Gen. Lewis A. Pick, he said.
Larsen spent three years in the South Pacific, traveling from India to Burma to China, as his medical unit oversaw the care of wounded soldiers from all sides, including the infamous Merrill’s Marauders, nicknamed “The Purple Heart Brigade,” battling Japanese forces in Burma.
“I helped many, many wounded soldiers,” Larsen said. “There was English and (Scottish soldiers), but they were all soldiers, and we took care of each and every one of them, along with all the Americans.”
Soon, Larsen had seen enough blood for his lifetime, and recalls taking on the role of auxiliary truck driver, driving wounded soldiers up the perilously narrow switchbacks of the famous 717-mile Burma Road in the Himalayan Mountains at night.
“You climb from 600 feet to about 14,000 feet in less than a mile’s traverse in, so it’s a pretty steep road,” Larsen added. “The worst thing was when we met some of the renegade Chinese soldiers, and they pushed one vehicle over the edge. That was terrible.”
After Larsen’s unit relocated to China, he had the opportunity to meet Chiang Kai-shek, commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army and leader of China.
“I personally had the privilege of having him shake my hand and give us each of a medal,” Larsen said, adding that it was his most precious memory of the war. “That was quite a thrill.”
Following his homecoming, Larsen spent three years in the National Guard in Utah before moving to California.
Just a month shy of 98 years old, Larsen is now one of the oldest living WWII veterans in the SCV, though he says he doesn’t feel it.
With four children, 22 grandchildren, 46 great-grandchildren, four great-great-grandchildren and more on the way, it’s family that Larsen said he cherishes.
“I’ve got a beautiful family,” he added. “They’re all good kids. I’m proud of each and every one of them. … My family is great to comfort me and help me.”
He has four grandsons who’ve followed his footsteps and joined the military.
As he reflects on his life and his own service to his country, he simply said he loves life and loves people.
“I’m proud that I was able to serve my country,” he said, tearing up, “and most proud that I was able to help heal so many soldiers.”
Larsen hopes to live to be a centurion and to see the division in the country dissipate.
“I’ve always loved people, and I’d like to get along with people,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that I hate, because they’ve each got their own privilege to live in the way they want to live. … I want people to know that they should still have a love for one another.”
Army National Guard Spc. John Emmanuel Acain
It wasn’t long after John Emmanuel Acain immigrated to the United States from the Philippines that he decided to join the military.
“Even in the Philippines, my uncles either joined the military or they joined the police, so I already knew what I was going to do, even at a young age,” Acain said.
With his family only given conditional papers in the U.S., it only pushed him more toward that path.
“I come from a family of four and … I didn’t want to be a burden to my mom,” Acain added. “I didn’t want her to worry about me, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do once I finished high school.”
So as a sophomore in high school, he enlisted in the Army National Guard, serving from 2006 to 2012, and was soon followed by his older brother, who also enlisted in the Guard.
Guardsmen serve one drill weekend each month and one annual training period, usually for two weeks in the summer, though they can be deployed at any time.
“I was actually deployed with my brother,” Acain said. “We went to Kosovo for a peacekeeping mission in 2009.”
It was before that deployment while at Los Angeles International Airport that Acain began receiving thanks from strangers for his service.
“At that time, I still felt as though I wasn’t fit for them to thank me because I hadn’t been battle-tested yet, so they say — but that was one thing I will never forget,” he said.
That experience quickly became Acain’s greatest memory in the service, as he said he appreciated it even more because he wasn’t born here.
The Santa Clarita resident remembers that day fondly, and has never stopped appreciating what the military has done for him.
“It was really good for me, and I say that because I got more than what they offered,” he said of joining. “I was able to get my bachelor’s degree because of it, I was able to get a house because of it — so joining the Army was the best decision I ever made.”
Following his service, Acain went to Devry University, graduating magna cum laude, and is now the proud owner of a home in Santa Clarita, where he, his wife and three sons live happily.
Each Veterans Day, Acain said he really takes pride in honoring and celebrating his veteran status.
“I always think in the back of my mind, when I joined … there was no guarantee you’ll be OK … maybe you’ll still be in one piece physically, but not mentally, or vice-versa,” he added. “I’m very, very fortunate that even though I only did six years, I still have my 10 toes, I still have my 10 fingers, and I appreciate the few that are brave enough to say … ‘I’ll defend this country.’”
Army Col. Paul Raggio
When Santa Clarita resident Paul Raggio was attending Santa Clara University in 1975, he applied for and was awarded a full-ride scholarship through the Army.
After graduating with a degree in finance, Raggio enlisted as an officer and was sent to Germany to serve as a military policeman for three years before returning to the U.S. and serving at Fort Bragg, which became one of his favorite places.
“Early on, even before I was commissioned, I went to jump school, so I became a paratrooper, and then wanted to serve in units that would be jumping,” Raggio said. “So really, Fort Bragg is the only place you can go to for that.”
As his military career progressed, Raggio’s background in finance led to a couple of tours at the Pentagon, where he first worked as a comptroller, overseeing the accounting and financial reporting procedures of an organization.
“My first assignment was at the Pentagon in the Defense Intelligence Agency, and I ran the defense attaché budget, which was about a $120 million budget,” Raggio said. “It was pretty unique. That required me to do a lot of work on Capitol Hill with the intelligence oversight committees, both on the House and Senate side.”
His experience then led to more legislative work, first with a stint as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s legislative liaison, followed by more legislative work later in his career under the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army.
“When I was in, you had to have a few specialties,” Raggio said. “Then the Army will generally take you out of a troop assignment, put you in a staff assignment and go back and forth.”
Raggio recalls being at the Pentagon on 9/11, a surreal experience he said he’ll never forget.
“You mentally transition every time you go into or out of a deployment area, … so you’re prepared for a lot of this stuff,” he said. “You just never imagine coming back to our country and experiencing something like that, the horror of that.”
Raggio retired in 2003, after nearly 26 years in the service, later using the skills to start he learned in the military to start One True North, a leadership and business coaching business, with his sister Lisa Raggio.
Even so, Raggio admits to missing military life to this day. “The camaraderie that you have, the trust relationships that you build, the bonds that are created. When you’re in a crisis, and you’re working as a team to resolve it, there’s just nothing like it.”
Each year when Veterans Day rolls around, Raggio, like many other veterans, finds himself doing a lot of reflection.
“You still have these young kids that want to serve our country, to be in that group of people who are willing to sacrifice and the risk associated with that, is just an awesome feeling,” he said. “When I think of these holidays, I really do think of that, and I’m still so appreciative of young people who want to serve.”
Like with Larsen, the divisive discourse in our country is what Raggio believes to be the biggest challenge today, which he believes can be fixed by getting back to the basics.
“We don’t have enough of our leaders, whether they’re local or national, projecting how important character is in defining the ideals and values of the United States,” Raggio added. “It just takes a little flame to start this fire. If you just start to get back to a character-driven society, instead of a ‘me’ society, the power and the impact that would have overall is tremendous.”