Lt. Col. Dick Merritt’s life calling is to help fellow veterans | AspenTimes.com

Lt. Col. Dick Merritt’s life calling is to help fellow veterans

It was 50 years ago, in 1966, that Lt. Col. Dick Merritt began serving in the Vietnam War as a member of the Marine Corps, and not a day goes by that he doesn't reflect on his experience there.

"I think about it every day," said Merritt, 81.

Memories of combat run deep, starting with his time on the USS Princeton aircraft carrier.

"They got this man out of the helicopter, put him on a stretcher, and this Marine, he died right in front of our men," Merritt said. "I said to myself, 'There's no turning back; you're going into combat; there's no turning back, and you're totally committed.' That was my introduction to combat."

Merritt said he doesn't suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but for decades he has reached out to those afflicted veterans facing a lifetime struggle.

He has worked with Paul Andersen (also an Aspen Times columnist) on Huts for Vets, a program that helps vets with post-traumatic stress disorder by taking them on backcountry trips. Other volunteer efforts have included participation in the winter sports clinic for disabled veterans, work with the Aspen Institute and Colorado Mountain College to focus on veterans' issues, completing the We Honor Veterans Volunteer Training program by Hospice of the Valley and being instrumental in the Roaring Fork Veterans History Project that began in 2007 and memorializes the stories of local servicemen and women.

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Merritt, whose volunteer work was recognized in May 2014 by the Aspen City Council and September 2014 by the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, recently spoke to a group of Glenwood Springs High School students about his military experience and veterans issues. And two weekends ago, he marched in the inaugural Go Autism walk in Carbondale, which was held to generate awareness about autism and Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Merritt also has been a key figure in the organization of Aspen's Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances, and he'll be standing alongside other fellow soldiers at today's ceremony at the Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial, a site he helped create in 1987.

This, suffice it to say, is Merritt's life calling.

"As they say, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,'" he said.

Merritt's story mirrors those of many who served in Vietnam. The day he returned to the states from Southeast Asia, he was peppered with ridicule from an unlikely person — his wife's boss.

"My wife was an elementary school teacher in Seattle, and they were having a cocktail party for the teachers," Merritt said. "And she introduced me to the school principal and said, 'This is my husband, Major Dick Merritt. He just returned from Vietnam.'

"I put out my hand to shake his, and he said, 'How many women and children did you kill?' Here's a school principal with influence . … I was shocked. I couldn't believe him. They were killing the messengers. They didn't go to the politicians."

The public mood about Vietnam has shifted since then, but Merritt didn't march in Aspen's annual Fourth of July parade until 2002. The reason: Vietnam vets had been pelted with water balloons, he said. He wasn't about to put up with it.

"Now when we march, we get a standing applause," he said. "And that brings tears to my eyes from start to finish."

Merritt grew up skiing and rock climbing, and the U.S. Navy paid for his education at the University of Washington, where he also earned a master's degree related to military geography. He moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1979, having served in the military for 22 years. He had bought a piece of property in Aspen in 1969 after seeing an Aspen newspaper in 1967 during his final time in Vietnam.

During his decades in the valley, Merritt's chief objective has been to reach out to as many veterans as he can, but it is not an easy task. Some live in isolation and have difficulty connecting with others. Studies have shown that 7,000 veterans live in the area between Vail, Rifle and Aspen. But there could be twice as many because a number of them don't use veterans' benefits to which they are entitled, he said.

"Because I was an officer, I had a responsibility for the lives of my men," said Merritt, who also served in China, Japan and the Philippines. "That's the way I feel in the valley."

Merritt is one of the go-to people when a local veteran dies.

"They come to me," he said. "Just the other day a man called me and said he wants me to plan his funeral, a military funeral."

The state of the world today is unsettling to Merritt.

"A number of retired officers and generals and myself never felt we should have gone to Iraq in the first place," he said, adding: "North Africa, Syria, Iraq and Iran — I don't know how it's ever going to be resolved."

But days like today, he said, help bring a sense of community.

"I see more and more people coming out to Memorial Day services," he said. "People are searching for answers. It's a perpetual war, and I cannot see an end to it. But we have this feeling of bringing community together."

Merritt still enjoys skiing and golf. He was set to hit the links at the Roaring Fork Club on Friday for a tournament, and he continues to teach children to ski at Buttermilk.

Merritt lives in Basalt with his second wife, Patricia. They have two adopted children, a daughter and son from Taiwan.

If you go …

What: Memorial Day ceremonies in Aspen

When: Noon, Monday, May 30

Where: Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial, next to courthouse at 506 E. Main St.

Also: After the ceremony, Aspen Elks Lodge No. 224 will host a community picnic at Conner Park next to Aspen City Hall

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