[This is a piece I posted at AllCamino.com last year, Memorial Day, 2010.]
A few months ago I noticed a new traffic light and street sign had showed up in Midtown Milpitas, intersecting South Main Street just north of Montague Expressway. The sign read, “Mihalakis St.” I had no idea what it meant, but it was fun to say. I figured it was probably the name of the developer of the new apartments there, a little vanity eponym like so many other streets in the area. But then not long later, I happened to be flipping through my Arcadia Publishing Milpitas book and came across the name Mihalakis again. It was the most recent among a list of fallen soldiers from Milpitas, honored by the Veterans Memorial adjacent to city hall.
Specialist Michael Mihalakis of the California Army National Guard died in an auto accident in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2003, while off-duty. His Humvee rolled over near the Baghdad airport, killing him. It was tragically ironic as he had an older sister who had recently awakened from a coma caused by brain injuries from a car accident in Denver. His parents shared the happy news of her miraculous recovery with him over the phone on Christmas Day, one day before his death. Michael was only 18, had attended Milpitas High School and played lead guitar in a rock band.
He left behind in a safety deposit box a remarkable letter to his parents to be opened in the event of his death, in which he consoled them that he served proudly and had no regrets as he “gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
It was his older sister, Christine, who submitted his name to the city of Milpitas for a program in which they name streets after fallen veterans to honor their memories. (Interestingly, the Milpitas seal bears the same image of Daniel Chester French’s The Minute Man statue as the National Guard logo, but in Milpitas’ case, it’s a political allegory, not having to do with actual military service.) The soldiers so commemorated span conflicts from World War I to the present. The streets are located throughout the city but Mihalakis Street is the first memorial road to cross Main Street, part of what I call El Camino de San Jose. One block past Mihalakis at the upcoming Alexan Condos project, another street is planned, named Doonewey, for Army Specialist Doonewey White. Doonewey, 26, a native of the Philippines who grew up in Milpitas, looked forward to returning home to his fiancée who was pregnant with their first child. He died of his injuries a day after a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad on May 28, 2007—Memorial Day.
As it turns out, there are several programs that use the nation’s roads and freeways to commemorate our veterans. One such program is the Blue Star Memorial Highways project, adopted by the National Garden Clubs in 1946. They place markers on highways, cemeteries, and veterans hospitals as tribute to America’s armed forces. There are many Blue Star Memorial roads throughout California, including State Route 58 in Santa Margarita, part of El Camino Real.
Perhaps the most significant program is the Purple Heart Trail. It is a series of roads, highways, and bridges throughout the United States legislatively designated to honor recipients of the Purple Heart, a medal awarded to U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in action. Each segment has special signs featuring an image of the Purple Heart medal, a visual reminder of the freedom we enjoy in this country and the price our veterans paid to protect it. California’s Purple Heart Trail was just designated by the California Legislature in August, 2009. It is a 115-mile portion of U.S. 101 through San Luis Obispo County. In this part of the state, U.S. 101 either is itself El Camino Real or runs directly alongside it.
Memorial Day is one day set aside for us to remember the soldiers who laid down their lives for us. A road, however, can be an everyday reminder, timeless, tireless and lasting. El Camino Real bears the memories of our state, etched in asphalt. In these solemn, dedicated stretches, this highway honors the memories of California’s sons and daughters who donned their country’s uniform and served heroically, many making the ultimate sacrifice.