Aspen’s Memorial Day Observance remembers the fallen and ‘those who did come back’
Aspen’s annual Memorial Day Observance was a stirring mix of honoring the dead for their military service and encouragement to help survivors who are struggling because of their experiences.
“Today is traditionally remembering those who didn’t come back, but we also have to take care of those who did come back,” said Charlie Hopton, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and now volunteers with the Western Slope Veterans Coalition, an organization that helps veterans in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties to pursue the benefits to which they are entitled.
“Let’s take care of our vets,” Hopton told a crowd of between 150 and 200 who attended the ceremony in Conner Park adjacent to Aspen City Hall.
Paul Andersen, founder and executive director for the nonprofit Huts for Vets, said the trauma of war has haunted warriors since ancient times, though now there is greater understanding of the mental toll. Their experiences can lead to a “moral injury” where life isn’t held in high regard any longer, he said.
There were 20 suicides per day among U.S. veterans in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Huts for Vets uses wilderness and communal experiences as therapeutic healing for veterans and active-duty service members at no cost to them. The wilderness therapy has so far served 128 veterans who have hiked 2,770 miles in the wilderness around Aspen. The experience is designed to provide a life affirmation for mind, body and spirit.
“At Huts for Vets, we offer a new start, maybe,” Andersen said.
Pitkin County Veterans Service Officer Janine Barth outlined additional ways that people can help with veterans.
Aspen’s observance culminated with veteran Darryl Grob’s roll call of the Roaring Fork Valley servicemen killed in the line of duty, followed by the playing of “Taps” by trumpeter Dick Sundeen and the Retirement of Colors by Bob Perigo and Palmer Hood, two Navy veterans in the Roaring Fork Valley Veterans Honor Guard.
As always, audience members were encouraged to come up and pay tribute to someone special to them who served in the military. Several speakers remembered Sgt. James Edward “Pepper” Gomes, a longtime Aspenite who served in the distinguished Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery from 1963 to 1966. Gomes, who died last May, was active in local veterans’ affairs and was a well-known and popular Aspen resident.
Hopton delivered a tribute to Gomes by noting what an emotional toll it would take to participate in so many burials of soldiers.
“I can’t imagine a harder job to do,” Hopton said. “He would have been better off in combat.”
Jean Owen gave a stirring remembrance of her late husband, Cody Owen. He was a young solider in the mid-1960s who immediately was in the thick of combat in Vietnam. He suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life as a result of his experiences in war, she said.
Mrs. Owen urged the crowd to keep in mind the “walking wounded” — the homeless men walking the streets and others suffering in invisible ways from their experiences while serving their country.
Longtime Aspen resident Marcia Goshorn was asked to help with the candle-lighting ceremony. She spoke briefly about her dad, who was a B24 Liberator Bomber pilot who spent nine months in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. He died last month.
“It’s one of those things where he’s up there smiling down, no longer in pain and with people he wanted to be with,” she said.
Veterans Dick Merritt and Dan Glidden organized and coordinated the ceremony, as they have since it was started 31 years ago. The event will return next year to the Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial Park, which looks “stunning” after changes made in conjunction to the reconstruction of the Pitkin County Courthouse Annex, according to Glidden.
A rededication ceremony for the memorial park will be made on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
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