By Jon Shakill
We sat down for an exclusive interview with Policy Advisor Steve Spernak, a senior advisor to California politician Shawn Nelson, who is the Supervisor for the 4th District of Orange County, CA, as well as the Vice-Chairman of the Board. Our exclusive interview gives us a behind the scenes look at the event, which helped bring some closure and comfort to the local parents who lost sons on the front lines of war. The event focused on memorializing lost troops who had called the 4th District of Orange County, CA their home. It is events like this one that bring people together, from all walks of life, from any political or non-political point of view, to honor their friends, neighbors, and loved ones, over good food and a great cigar.
Jon Shakill: How did the idea of hosting a memorial event at a cigar shop come to be?
Steve Spernak: To tell you the truth, this was all Shawn. He’s an avid cigar smoker, and so am I. Shawn’s idea was to invite the families from our district, who had lost loved ones in war, to a Sunday BBQ to enjoy cigars and memorialize the fallen troops. This was his small way of saying “thank you.”
Jon Shakill: How did you end up at Vintage Cigars, in Costa Mesa, CA, which is not specifically in the Supervisor’s district?
Steve Spernak: Shawn kicked the idea around with staff before he closed on Vintage Cigars. We had enjoyed the hospitality of Vintage Cigars and its owner, Ribhi Saoud, and the customers at Vintage all wanted to help. Ribhi had done cigar events and helped the Orange County Traffic Officer Association raise over $40,000 for the families of four Oakland Police Department officers. He’s a good soul and offered us the entire store for a Sunday event.
Jon Shakill: What was the goal of the event, and who coordinated it so that the families would show up?
Steve Spernak: Marlon Chincilla coordinated with the attending families, who loved the idea. Shawn actively promoted the event, in order to raise cigars for the platoons of Marine Cpl. Claudio Patino, and Army Staff Sgt. Marc Arizmendes. The cigars raised were then sent overseas to these platoons, who had lost their comrades in battle. The hope was that the cigars would show the troops that the community at home is thinking about them and their loss.
The cigars gave the associates and commanders of our fallen patriots some time to reflect on the lives of their friends, and see how appreciated their service and sacrifices are. It also gave Shawn a chance to meet the families in person, share BBQ, great cigars, and extend our appreciation for their sons’ ultimate sacrifice. We sent all of the best cigars we could get our hands on, everything from Gurkha to Rocky Patel, Diamond Crown, and Cohiba, as well as other great brands. Everything was completely donated.
Jon Shakill: At the end of the day, how many cigars did “Cigars for Heroes” raise, and was it a success?
Steve Spernak: It was a success beyond words. The families loved it—they really got to see how much the local community cares about them and their sacrifices. They also appreciated the thoughtfulness of sending 500 donated cigars overseas for the best friends of Patino and Arizmendez to enjoy. Even the local patrons from Vintage Cigar shop collected from drive-up donors, directed traffic, and acted as if they were Shawn Nelson’s staff, with hospitality and interaction with the families. I’ve never been more proud of how guys who smoke cigars just stepped up and from their hearts took over to make the moment so special for these families.
Jon Shakill: What surprised you the most about how the even turned out?
Steve Spernak: It was really the people from the local community, and how they came together to make this event so great. Ian Lane, lead chef at Hilton Hotels JWA and Vintage Cigar local, delivered a full BBQ buffet donated by Hilton, cooked it overnight, and then set up the linens and hot-trays that morning. John Dade, the founder of a local cigar mixer group for business professionals, brought friends, Corvettes for display, and cigars. Nick Berardino, director from the 18,000 member Orange County Employees Association, stopped by with a signed box of quality smokes as a donation. This memorial was a personal homage for Mr. Berardino, who is a former Marine machine-gunner, who did real combat in Vietnam. He lost some of his own close friends in combat. Supervisor Nelson gave Mr. Berardino a Marine Flag as a “thank you.” And over a cigar—Romeo y Julietta—Nick told Shawn that “getting a decent cigar from home allowed guys in combat to escape reality for an hour. There wasn’t anything better. You felt like a king for a week, even if only for an hour or so, you could share a cigar with buddies. Sending cigars to the troops in the names of their buddies killed in action is a first class gesture by you [Supervisor Nelson] to make that happen.”
Jon Shakill: I understand that Supervisor Nelson gave certificates of recognition from the county to each family with Psalm 91 on it. Why that?
Steve Spernak: It was Shawn’s way of saying thanks from the people of Orange County, to the parents and families. Shawn gave the certificates for them to put on their sons’ “hero wall,” and also presented flowers for each mother in front of their son’s photo. We posted each portrait with a dozen American flags in front of Vintage Cigars. It looked something akin to Arlington when the families arrived. Elegant and very patriotic, just the way Shawn envisioned.
Furthermore, Psalm 91 is thought by many to be the Warrior’s Prayer. Shawn has it delivered to each family who has lost a loved one from his 4th District. If Shawn can’t attend, he makes sure I get it hand-delivered to the church, so family and loved-ones see that the entire community appreciated their lost loved ones, lives, and military sacrifice.
During the presentation, there were tears from all of us; tears of pride and appreciation, and also tears in sympathy for those who lost loved ones. It was an amazing four hours of citizens in the community coming together in celebrating their heroes. We felt as if we had smiles from heaven, when the cigar smoke reached there from the memorial.