The thick woody aroma of cigar smoke flows through the air on this breezy Sunday afternoon. Families and friends of United States Marines walk towards and gather near Vintage Cigars in Santa Ana in front of a row of waving American flags and portraits of loved ones.
The name of the event, â€œCigars for Heroes,â€ can fool anyone. When I hear â€œcigarsâ€ I think of old men smoking in a lounge room with a glass of scotch in one hand and a fat, juicy cigar in the other.
This event is to remember fallen loved ones, celebrate troops and send them care packages to cheer them up.
These troops have been overseas on shifts that can last for over a year. Many of them look forward to receiving care packages of general toiletries and snacks, but those things are expected. Cigars? Now cigars are a treat.
â€œFrom the guys we talked to, when you get a box of cigars, youâ€™re like a king for a week,â€ said Shawn Nelson, Orange County Supervisor.
Nelson blows out a puff of heavy smoke. â€œWe can send them cigars. They get to enjoy one of the luxuries of life.â€
Owner of Vintage Cigars, Ribhi Saoud, was approached by event coordinator Steve Spernak and felt more than happy to hold the event at his cigar shop.
Families and friends held cigars, blew out smoke with a sense of relief and shared memories of their loved ones while enjoying food and company.
â€œWeâ€™re sending them (troops) an Orange County flag so they can take a picture while theyâ€™re smoking their cigars,â€ said Steve Spernak, who coordinated the event.
The picture will then be sent back to family and friends in the states and will also be in Cigar Aficionado magazine.
While many troop members love cigars, there are a few who werenâ€™t too keen on the aromatic smokey treat.
â€œClaudio wasnâ€™t into cigars. He was about exercising and Mixed Martial Arts,â€ said Marlon Chinchilla, of Yorba Linda, who was remembering his little brother, Claudio Patino IV, United States Marine Cpl.
But even though Cpl. Patino wasnâ€™t a cigar fan, he always enjoyed other treats in his care package.
â€œHe was very unselfish and would always share his care packages with his friends,â€ Chinchilla said. â€œHe was known for sharing his Tapatio sauce.â€
Albert Arizmendez, who had two chocolaty brown cigars nestled in his coat pocket, tilted his head and looked at the portrait of his son, United States Army Staff Sgt. Marc Andrew Arizmendez.
â€œHe liked being a soldier. He was very compassionate,â€ said Arizmendez.
Arizmendez told me about his son, and how he was a mechanic and loved to fix tanks. Sgt. Arizmendez was due to come home this August but was stalled when he went on a mission. When he came back, he and his troops encountered an explosion from a bomb that had been placed were they were staying.
The explosion blew his face off.
â€œThey decided not to show his face, he looked like a mummy,â€ Arizmendez said about his sonâ€™s funeral service. â€œIt softened him like he was rested. Like an angel. It softened the blow by looking at the white.â€
I couldnâ€™t think of how Sgt. Arizmendezâ€™s father felt. I had never experienced a loss so great.
â€œHeâ€™s in heaven now, no more troubles,â€ Arizmendez said.
Arizmendezâ€™s mentality flowed threw the event. Everyone was jovial, relaxed and had a sense of peace. Their loved ones arenâ€™t gone, they live on in their stories and memories.
The care packages will help the troops overseas feel less homesick and hopefully surprise them with their favorite indulgences.
â€œThis is something special. You get a cigar, itâ€™s handmade, they know itâ€™s something special to them,â€ Nelson said. â€œIt takes 45 minutes to an hour to smoke and itâ€™s something to help them relax.â€