Honoring military veterans is lifelong pursuit of Aspen’s Pepper Gomez
November 11, 2016
Honoring military veterans isn't something Aspen resident Pepper Gomez reserves just for Nov. 11 each year. He's been regularly recognizing the service of his colleagues since he entered the U.S. Army in August 1963.
Gomez was a scrappy 17-year-old from the Boston-area when he enlisted to serve in the infantry. He had completed his basic training as well as advanced infantry training and was preparing for jump school when an opportunity arose that changed his life.
Representatives of the Army's Old Guard interviewed 10 or 12 trainees to see if they had the desire and the right stuff to serve on the special detail for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and conduct military ceremonies in the nation's capital.
Gomez was playing on the football team at Fort Dicks at the time and recalls telling the tough old colonel who coached the team about the offer to join The Old Guard at Arlington. His response wasn't complimentary.
"He said, 'They're a bunch of wusses down there. They don't fight or nothin,'" Gomez said.
But a lieutenant he respected told the young solider what an honor it would be to serve in The Old Guard.
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The deal was sealed when the 17-year-old Gomez learned from the recruiter that the ratio of women-to-men was greater than 13 to 1 in the Washington, D.C. area.
"I was very proud to be selected because I was a kid from the streets," Gomez said.
He was sent to Fort Myer to serve in the north post at Arlington. He joined Delta Company, 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.
The Old Guard, as the 3rd U.S. Infantry is known, is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, having served since 1784. It has 50 campaign streamers signifying its long history of service.
In October 1963, Gomez joined the third firing party, worked his way up to the first firing party, then started anew and worked through the ranks as commander of the firing party.
The seven shooters in the firing party fire three volleys for a 21-shot salute at funerals, then stand at attention for Taps.
"You can do seven, eight funerals per day," Gomez said.
Anyone who has attended a military funeral knows the emotional feeling created by the ceremony, whether performed by The Old Guard in Arlington or by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion at funerals across the country.
More than 50 years after Gomez was in the center of the ceremonies, it is still a stirring memory for him.
"I still get emotional about it," he said. "We give the final honors for our fallen comrades."
Flood of memories
He has a flood of memories. At his first service, he recalls a car pulling up with the remains of a service member in an urn. An elderly couple attended the ceremony alone. He recalls being unable to fight back the tears.
"It took about three or four of those funerals before it would not be so emotional," Gomez said.
It made a big impression on a young kid from Boston.
"You say, 'I get it. This really is something special,'" he said.
Gomez said he participated in teams that escorted funerals of all types — from soldiers who were reinterred after they were initially buried in Omaha Beach during the D-Day landing in France to the ceremony of five-star general Douglas MacArthur.
His most memorable service came after President Kennedy's assassination just one month after Gomez joined the firing team at Arlington. Gomez had the weekend off and was hitchhiking on the Jersey Turnpike when he learned of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. He crossed the freeway and headed back to D.C. When he arrived at the barracks, he and his colleagues worked on their uniforms for hours to make sure they were immaculate.
The next seven days were a blur of activity, Gomez said. He stood at attention on a street in Washington while the funeral procession went by. He was part of two-man teams standing at attention and at parade rest during four-hour shifts at the president's grave while hundreds of thousands of mourners walked by.
"Everybody in the world was there," he said, noting he couldn't recite all the foreign and domestic dignitaries who came to pay their respects. (Frank Sinatra's visit stood out.)
There were memorial experiences outside of Arlington as well. Gomez marched with his battalion at the inauguration of President Johnson and attended the ball.
The Old Guard is there
He said members of the funeral escort were like all members of the military — off duty they would complain about this and that, horse around and do what young men do. But they also were professionals.
"When it's time for the job, you've never seen a sharper unit — except the damn Marines," he said, tongue in cheek.
Toward the end of his enlistment in 1966, his team started seeing funerals for military servicemen killed in Vietnam. He remains full of pride for what he did during his three years in the Army.
"No matter what you did in the service, when it comes to the end, The Old Guard is there, stretching the flag and shooting the gun," he said.
He has continued to honor veterans ever since his days in The Old Guard. He is a regular participant in Aspen's Veterans' Day services.
"It makes my heart," he said before pausing for a moment and collecting himself, "it's very emotional for me."
Gomez drove to Aspen in December 1967 to ski and started teaching skiing at Aspen Highlands the following season. He remains a ski pro, now at Buttermilk. His only absence from the Aspen ski scene in the past 49 years was a four-year stint as a ski school director at a California resort starting in 1979.
Aspen is his home and honoring veterans is his passion.