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Antonie Boessenkool / The Californian

Military veterans Juan Florez, Elmer Wielenga and Wesley Barrientos, all Purple Heart recipients, unveiled the new sign marking a section of Highway 223 as part of the Purple Heart Trail. The trail begins at Mt. Vernon in Virginia, where George Washington is buried, and recognizes those who have earned the Purple Heart in combat.

Dozens of military veterans and their families gathered outside Arvin Friday to celebrate the marking of a section of Highway 223 as part of the Purple Heart Trail, a national network of roads stretching from the east to west coasts designated to honor Purple Heart recipients.

The section of Highway 223 stretches from Highway 99 to Highway 58. Other parts of the Purple Heart Trail are along Interstate 40, Interstate 80, Interstate 5 and Highway 101, said Gary "Doc" Rutledge, the state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and an Army veteran of the Vietnam War.

"This shows the interest in people who have served the county who have not only shed blood but those who have died," Rutledge said before the event started.

"Kern County is so great with the veterans," Rutledge said. Arvin recently declared itself a Purple Heart City, and Rutledge said the council members there have been supportive of the sign installation.

"I can't say enough good things about them," he said.

"This is not about us standing here with Purple Hearts, the Purple Heart recipients," David Jackson, commander of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, told the audience once the dedication got under way. "This trail is for those that are not able to be here and talk for themselves. It's about their families and their spouses that they left behind."

Wesley Barrientos, an Iraq War veteran, said he appreciated that the sign is there to remind local residents and their families about the veterans' service.

"It's a great honor for somebody to step up and give us a highway like this," he said. Barrientos said he got involved in raising money for the signs, about $4,000, when he heard about the efforts by the local chapter to have the signs installed along Highway 223.

"We are just desirous of honoring Purple Heart recipients in this county," said Leon Thomas, who earned a Purple Heart in 1951 while serving in the Army in Korea.

Thomas said it took about two years of planning and working with state and local government toget the sign in place, but that state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, was instrumental in moving the idea along. Thomas is with the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

"Without his push, we would've had a tough time getting this out as fast as we did," he said.

Another sign has been installed near the interchange of Highways 223 and 58. More signs will eventually be installed in Arvin, Thomas said.

The section of Highway 223 was chosen because it leads past the Bakersfield National Cemetery in Arvin, he said. Thomas said there are an estimated 2,500 living Purple Heart recipients in Kern County.

Funding for the signs came from the Bakersfield chapter of the Wounded Heroes Fund, a local women's group called Beta Sigma Fi that does fundraising for needy causes and from private donations, Thomas said.