A half-done, inadequate memorial to three members of a Sonoma County-based National Guard battalion who were killed in action in Iraq may soon be replaced, thanks to a group of military supporters and retirees.
At the same time, Iraq veteran Paul Hoffman, a retired Marine and National Guard staff sergeant, and Joe Noriel, who runs Petaluma’s History Connection, are working to raise the local profile of the National Guard, an oft-forgotten arm of the military.
In November 2004, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol was killed when a bomb exploded under his Humvee. Two other members of his battalion, Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, 34, of Tracy and Lt. Andre Tyson, 33, of Riverside, were killed five months earlier when an Iraqi National Guard soldier accompanying them on patrol turned his weapon on them.
All three men were members of the 579th Engineer Battalion, based in Santa Rosa. After their deaths, a memorial to the three men was started at the Petaluma armory but was never really finished, Hoffman said. “The place got overgrown with weeds. There was still a lot of deploying going on, people going every which way,” he said. “It just kind of got overlooked.”
After Hoffman, 54, returned from his second tour in Iraq as a Guardsman he was asked to become a board member of the Patrick McCaffrey Foundation, a nonprofit started by McCaffrey’s mother that assists injured and traumatized veterans once they’re home.
“She came up to see (the memorial site). … She wasn’t happy,” he said. “It was just sitting down on the ground on a granite slab. In order to read the plaque, you’d have to lay on your stomach.”
The new plan is for a larger, more respectful monument that honors the three men killed in action and 82 men from the battalion who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Noriel, who has been instrumental in replacing the stolen Vietnam veterans’ memorial in Petaluma and various other military memorial events, has reached out to his contacts.
“Many people may not be aware that Petaluma’s 579th is California’s most decorated combat company,” he said.
“These are so much more than citizen soldiers. These men and woman are oftentimes in the direct line of fire. This memorial will honor the sacrifice of these three brave men.”
He hopes it will bring people to the armory and remind people of the risks National Guard soldiers take — beyond their traditional roles as helpers in national disasters.
“We want to bring it home to Petaluma, their sacrifice. It’s right in our backyard,” he said. “Our hope is the community will support this worthy cause.”
The pair has helped raise some money, but is seeking additional financial help to pay for a larger bronze statue of boots, a helmet and rifle to honor Ottolini, McCaffrey and Tyson. That will sit atop a four-foot-tall concrete base with a granite slab on the sides, where the names of the wounded will be carved.
They estimate they will need an additional $4,000 or so to finish it. Their goal is to have it ready for a ceremony by Veterans Day in November.
It will sit in a small alcove near the entrance of the National Guard Armory, 580 Vallejo St. in Petaluma. Hoffman said they’d also like to install a bench near the monument.