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Aspen honors veterans on 35th anniversary of the Veterans Memorial Park

Lt. Col. Dick Merritt (ret.), right, names Aspen fire chief Rick Balentine an honorary Marine during the Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at the Aspen fire station. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

On the 11th day of the 11th month of the year at 11 o’clock in the morning, veterans and civilians gathered at the Aspen Fire House to celebrate Veterans Day and honor those who have served. 

Some veterans arrived in military paraphernalia, and event hosts passed out poppy pins to attendees, a nod to the World War I remembrance poem “In Flanders Field,” which was read aloud during the ceremony.

A crowd of over 100 people came to the event, which was moved from Veterans Memorial Park to the fire house due to cold weather. Seating set up by the fire department filled quickly, and only standing room was available by the time the program began.



After the national anthem, two veterans presented the American flag and the POW/MIA flag; a local Girl Scout troop brought out a memorial wreath. With a fire engine as their backdrop, speakers from the Roaring Fork Valley community — veterans and civilians — shared stories of their personal connection to the holiday. At the end of the ceremony, attendees were invited up to the lectern to honor veterans close to their own hearts. A live playing of the military bugle call “Taps” punctuated the event.

People gather for the annual Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at the Aspen fire station. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Members of the Aspen veteran community were heartened by the community response. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Dick Merritt leads the Roaring Fork Valley’s veteran community and organizes many veteran-related events. 




Upon graduating from the University of Washington in 1957, he commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. His military career lasted 22 years. 

“We veterans really appreciate the support from the community,” he said of the turnout. 

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Veterans Memorial Park at the Pitkin County Courthouse. Merritt hopes the community will keep the tradition alive for the next 35 years. 

“We’re looking for younger veterans, so our traditions can carry on,” he said. 

Amber DeLuca, 40, is one of those younger veterans Merritt convinced to take an active role in the local veteran community. She is an Aspen native who enlisted in the Marines in 2001, after graduating high school early at 17 years old. Sent first to Rota, Spain, then Camp Pendleton in California after 9/11 and eventually Fallujah, Iraq, she served for five years.

She says Veteran’s Day is important to her for many reasons, but being in a space with other veterans who share her experiences is what she values most. 

“The camaraderie that we don’t have anymore from being with other troops, Marines and Navy (sailors) … it’s just something that we’re lacking, so getting it back is just really good,” DeLuca said.

And, while she is grateful for the outpouring of community support she sees on military holidays, she also implores civilians to consider why service members joined the ranks.

“Understanding that (military) service is not necessarily just for them, but for us, too. It’s what we chose to do.”

As of March 2022, active-duty enlisted personnel numbered 1,077,153. And, active-duty officers numbered 234,925, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That accounts for less than 1% of the American population. 

And, recruitment is struggling. The Navy and the Air Force met their recruitment goals this past fiscal year — but just barely. And, the Army fell short by thousands of recruits. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command points to a historically small pool of qualified youth, a lack of pre-existing knowledge of military service, and a declining veteran population as possible causes for the recruitment lapse. 

Since the government ended the draft in 1973, the military has been an entirely volunteer force. Merritt says that, every year, three or four teenagers from the Roaring Fork Valley enlist with one of the four service branches or get appointed to a military academy. And, he hopes to see that continue into the future.

Taps is played at the conclusion of the Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, at the Aspen fire station. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“We bring in the Boy and Girl Scouts to follow in our traditions, and hope for the next 35 years we’ll be able to continue our ceremonies,” he said. 

Heather Merritt Gentry, Lt. Col. Merritt’s daughter, attended with her kids and her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. 

“It gives them a sense of self-worth being here and having something to look up to,” Merritt Gentry said, “And, it’s kind that the veterans go out of their way to include the youth.”

Her son Sheldon Gentry shared his Eagle Scout project during the ceremony. He intends to get a bronze plaque installed at Veteran Memorial Park to honor veterans from the high country killed in action. 

When asked if would consider joining the service one day, he paused to consider and said, “Maybe!”

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