Honor from a distance: Local veterans work to support one another, keep Memorial Day traditions alive amid pandemic
HONORING THE FALLEN THIS MEMORIAL DAY
Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the annual Memorial Day ceremony to honor the American men and women who have died in combat, including those from Aspen specifically, will not be able to take place. However, if you and your family do not already have a Memorial Day tradition and are looking for ways to pay your respects on Monday in a safe, socially distanced way, local veterans have a few ideas:
• At 11 a.m., take a moment of silence to remember all of the U.S. military men and women who have died in combat.
• Visit one of the upper Roaring Fork cemeteries — Red Butte, Aspen Grove, Ute or Fairview (Basalt) — where American flags have been placed on each local veteran’s grave. Take some time to walk around and pay your respects
• All day Monday, Grassroots TV will be airing prerecorded interviews conducted with local veterans as part of the Roaring Fork History Project. Visit grassrootstv.org for the full schedule.
• If you know a local veteran or have a veteran in your family, give them a call! Ask them whom they think of and honor on Memorial Day, listen to their stories and thank them for their service.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon as Aspen native Dan Glidden walked among the headstones of Red Butte Cemetery.
Plot by plot, row by row, Glidden weaved his way through the burial ground with small American flags in one hand and a stake and hammer in the other.
And just like he has every year for the past 15 to 20 years, Glidden knelt next to more than 168 graves of local veterans — some he knew and others he didn’t — and secured American flags in the grass off of each bottom right corner as a visible token of honor and remembrance for Memorial Day weekend.
“We cannot forget these guys. We just can’t,” Glidden, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, said as he walked from one veteran’s grave to another.
Memorial Day is a national holiday that commemorates the men and women who died while in military service. Placing flags next to the graves of American veterans is a longtime tradition associated with the holiday and carried out in cemeteries like Red Butte all over the country, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It’s an honor to do it but also a duty,” Glidden explained. “It’s my obligation to do it and I will continue to do it, and I think a lot of other veterans feel the same way.”
Glidden and a group of local veterans also usually host a Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Park in front of the Pitkin County Administration building each year. But the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced them to shift their plans a bit.
Instead of a large public gathering, a handful of veterans including Glidden will take it upon themselves to place a commemorative wreath at the memorial park, read the names of the Aspen-area locals who died in combat, and play “Taps” on Monday as a small group, ensuring the holiday and the soldiers it commemorates are not forgotten.
“We will have a very short, silent and sincere ceremony,” said Dick Merritt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, emphasizing that the veterans do not want to draw a crowd. “This will be a different Memorial Day, more solemn, but we will still honor the fallen even though we can’t come together as a community.”
SUPPORT IN ISOLATION
While Memorial Day is a time to remember soldiers who died in combat, it’s also a time when veterans can gather with each other, connect and share their stories.
For Merritt, this social aspect of the military holiday has always been a big part of the local Memorial Day tradition and will be missed this year because of the pandemic.
“It’s very sad, for 33 years we’ve been gathering for the ceremony,” Merritt said, noting that it concludes with a barbecue at the Aspen Elks Lodge.
And it’s not just this one time Aspen-area veterans won’t get to see each other — most have been totally isolated from their friends due to the COVID-19 crisis for weeks.
That’s why Merritt, Glidden and other longtime local vets have started a phone tree of sorts to stay connected and ensure everyone feels socially and emotionally supported.
“We’ve done our best to keep in touch and check in on each other. … And with how many different ways there are to connect, we just need to do it,” Glidden said. “That way we don’t lose our sense of family and belonging, which is key.”
The Western Slope Veterans Coalition (WSVC), a nonprofit that runs a veterans resource center based in Glenwood Springs, also has worked to support Roaring Fork Valley veterans through the pandemic, checking in on many of their regular visitors weekly via phone.
John Pettit, WSVC treasurer and a founding member, said the nonprofit hasn’t seen a huge uptick in veterans seeking emergency aid due to the pandemic thus far, as many are receiving financial and food assistance from other valley organizations and county COVID-19 relief funds. However, he said WSVC remains ready and able to support Roaring Fork veterans in whichever ways they need — especially those hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 isolation and social-distancing requirements.
“We really haven’t seen a huge increase in need so far,” Pettit, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, said of WSVC. “But we have someone here all of the time so if a person needs help, we’re here.”
On a recent afternoon at WSVC’s veterans resource center, Pettit and Jasmin Ramirez, an office assistant at the center, talked about the work they do to support local veterans. The resource center aims to serve as a hub for information, action, programs and activities that support and connect Roaring Fork and Eagle valley veterans, according to its website.
American flags and military branch seals decorated the main meeting area space, where Pettit and Ramirez said veterans usually meet for weekly coffee and doughnuts (but not during the pandemic), receive support with filling out discharge-related paperwork, and more.
But perhaps the most important pieces hanging from the center walls were the framed photos of Jesse Beckius of Glenwood Springs and Casey Owens of the Aspen area, the two local veterans the resource center is named for.
Both men were Marine Corps combat veterans who served in Iraq. Both died by suicide roughly one year a part in 2013 and 2014.
Those deaths sparked Pettit and a handful of other area veterans to get together and decide more needed to be done to support Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin county veterans, and the WSVC was formed.
More than five years later as the nonprofit begins a facility expansion to include a day center, computer rooms, TV lounges and exercise equipment, Pettit said the success of WSVC has been more than he could imagine. He hopes the organization can maintain its funding support this year and do even more for its veterans for years to come, especially for those who are younger.
“This has far exceeded whatever my vision was,” Pettit said. “Obviously there was a need.”
Charlie Hopton, president of WSVC and an Aspen resident, echoed Pettit’s sentiments. He said having a resource center like WSVC helps provide veterans with a sense of camaraderie and is a place where they can connect with people who have similar, shared military experiences, benefiting their mental health.
During the COVID-19 crisis, however, maintaining this connection is harder to do, Hopton said. And like much of the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley population, many veterans are out of work and struggling financially, socially and emotionally as a result of the crisis, which is why it’s important for WSVC to collaborate with other valley nonprofits to ensure all local veterans are fully supported.
“We have veterans who were trying to get their feet back on the ground, then the virus hit and they’re right back in the gutter where they started,” said Hopton, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Korean War.
As explained by Hopton and Pettit, WSVC tries to stay within its niche of providing military and veteran specific support, programming and information, but has an emergency fund that can help veterans with rent payments, bus or train tickets, food and other basic necessities if they are in “dire need.” Last year, WSVC dispersed roughly $23,000 from its emergency fund to veterans in the tri-county area and has a “healthy fund balance” this year to continue that support.
Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties veteran services also are available to local veterans, working in tandem with WSVC to ensure veterans have access to all the human services resources they may need.
“We work pretty closely with the Western Slope Veterans Coalition and refer back and forth quite frequently,” said Sam Landercasper, economic assistance manager for Pitkin County Human Services. “But we’re available for whatever needs veterans may have. … We want folks to know we’re here and to feel comfortable reaching out, whether it’s COVID-realted or not.”
Landercasper, who has worked with Pitkin County Human Services for just over three years, oversees veterans’ services for the county. However, for the past several months the county hasn’t had a veterans’ services officer.
To help fill this void, Landercasper said Pat Hammon, veterans service officer for Eagle County, has assisted until Pitkin County can fill its position.
When asked how Pitkin County has worked to support local veterans amid the pandemic, Landercasper said about 40% to 50% of the county’s roughly 50 veterans it supports on a regular basis have reached out for and received financial aid through the COVID-19 relief fund. He also said the county hopes to start conducting interviews for the veterans’ services officer position as soon as next week.
“We’ve had people able to maintain housing because of the assistance they’ve received and some of our regular guys are doing really well at the Brush Creek camp,” Landercasper said, referring to Pitkin County veterans. “But there are still folks suffering because of this and once the new VSO officer is hired and we continue into recovery, we can meet more actively with the vets in our community and talk with them to see how we can most effectively help them.”
But beyond nonprofit and government support, local veterans like Merritt, Glidden and Gunny Perigo, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, emphasized the greatest need is for basic human connection among all valley locals amid the pandemic.
The men encouraged residents to reach out to the veterans they know this Memorial Day simply to check in and talk, and to visit the area cemeteries sometime over the weekend to honor the many veterans buried there.
“For me personally, every day is Memorial Day,” said Perigo, who comes from a military family. “I constantly think about all of the fights my brothers and I survived. Almost every week of the year we lost people we knew. And every Memorial Day and the days leading up to it, I can’t help but remember all of those people.”
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