In a ceremony that was both emotional and celebratory, area friends and families gathered together Monday on Main Street at the Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial in honor of America’s fallen servicemen and women.
“Memorial Day — in case you thought it was about a three-day weekend, barbecues at the beach, no. That’s later,” said U.S. Navy veteran Dan Glidden who led the ceremony with retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dick Merritt. “You folks understand this. You get it, and I appreciate that. Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring the fallen. The fact that you folks are here today — you nailed it.”
Aspen’s 27th Memorial Day service included a roll call for seven area men killed in action: Peter F. Galligan in World War I; Julio L. Caparrella, Thomas R. McNeil and Joseph W. Mogan in World War II; James Bionaz in Korea; and William K. Sandersen and Edward Kettering Marsh in Vietnam. The event also included stories and remarks from members of the public who took the stage to honor fallen friends and family members from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Phyllis Townsend recalled the morning of December 7, 1941, in Oahu, Hawaii, where her father was serving aboard the USS New Orleans. After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, which her father survived, they sang “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” Townsend’s father lost his life in the Battle of Tassafaronga almost a year later, earning him the Navy Cross.
Merritt, who helped organize Aspen’s first memorial service in 1987, served overseas in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and the Republic of China. His fellow service members surprised him with a Marine Corps plaque and a photo of him in uniform taken at last year’s ceremony. Mayor Steve Skadron proclaimed Monday, May 26, 2014, to be Lt. Col. Dick Merritt Day in Aspen.
“That means so much to me,” said Merritt, who is a ski instructor for the Aspen Skiing Co. “We’re all friends here, and we’re just moving forward.”
Other veterans present at the ceremony included Virgil Simon, who served in World War II and the Philippines; Vincent Santucci, who flew aircraft for the Navy in World War II as well as Korea; and Kurt Bresnitz, a 96-year-old who as a German citizen escaped the Holocaust in 1938. Bresnitz fled to America and enlisted in the U.S. Army, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
With 22 veterans committing suicide daily, many spoke up in support of Huts for Vets, an organization that puts on free wilderness trips for returning service members. The group’s purpose is to help veterans adjust to and enjoy civilian life by equipping them with tools for enhancing mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health.
“While we’re here enjoying a day like today, there are service members over there, doing things that are scarring their souls, making life very difficult for them, adding to this number: 22 suicides per day, a suicide every 65 minutes,” Huts for Vets Director Paul Andersen said.
On June 12, 13 and 14 in Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Vail, the group is presenting “Make Sure It’s Me,” a play about, for and read by post-9/11 veterans. Ticket purchases and donations are available through hutsforvets.org.
During the open-mic portion of the ceremony, a tearful veteran, who fought in Iraq, took a moment to remember the fallen men he served with.
“These men made me a better man today, and I’ll always be grateful. God bless America,” he said.
The event also included a trumpet interlude from Richard Sundeen, who closed the ceremony with a rendition of “Taps.” Jeannie Walla, a former Crystal Palace performer who Merritt regarded as “our Norwegian nightingale,” sang “America, the Beautiful.”
“A soldier’s not dead until he’s forgotten,” Glidden said. “I think this is a pretty strong statement that they’re not forgotten.”