Marines have solemn gathering at Aspen Grove Cemetery on eve of Veterans Day | AspenTimes.com

Marines have solemn gathering at Aspen Grove Cemetery on eve of Veterans Day

With the death of Casey Owens still fresh on their minds, a collection of soldiers and supporters of the U.S. Marine Corps gathered Monday at Aspen Grove Cemetery to not only recognize the 239th birthday of the armed-forces branch but to call attention to the growing number of suicides that hangs over the military.

"We feel a great void with Casey," said retired Lt. Col. Dick Merritt, who led the procession. "It's a void and it's very real. It's very sad."

Owens, an amputee who made Aspen his home after serving in Iraq, took his life Oct. 15. He was 32. His legs were amputated after his Humveee struck a land mine in Baghdad on Sept. 20, 2004. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He was a Paralympic athlete and worked with Challenge Aspen.

"Casey had it together for a while after the war," said Bob Bogner, of Basalt, who served in the Marine Corps. Bogner recalled how Owens had taken to skiing and found success and peace in the sport. "But you could see Casey going downhill, and the valley did everything it could to support him."

Owens is the most recent local veteran to take his life — there have been others. Marine Rick Buesch, who served in Vietnam, died Jan. 10, 2001. At the time, he had worked as a jail deputy for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office. He also worked to bring awareness to local veterans issues.

His brother, Tom, attended Monday's observance.

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"He helped a lot of people," Tom Buesch said. "People would stop me and said that 'Rick helped me a lot in jail.' I was fortunate to have him as my best friend and my brother."

Merritt, too, lost a brother and fellow soldier to suicide. That was on Aug. 30, 1966, while Dick Merritt was in Vietnam.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released a report in 2013 stating that 22 veterans commit suicide every 24 hours. That number is now up to 23, Merritt said.

Merritt and another local Vietnam veteran, Fred Crowley, have played a key role in reaching out to local veterans through the Western Slope Veterans Coalition, which opened in Carbondale earlier this year through a collaboration with Rocky Mountain Human Services. Their hopes are that the coalition can provide aid to area veterans who might be homeless or are in need of support.

"The sad fact is Americans have forgotten their veterans," Merritt said.

"There are way too many people in this country who no longer understand," Crowley said.

It wasn't just veterans who spoke at Monday's gathering. Carol Cottrell recalled the time that she befriended Owens years ago at the J-Bar. "I was listening to his story, and I was mesmerized," she said.

Two years later, Owens would ask Cottrell why she loved him so much. She answered him with a letter, which she sent to him before he died. She also read it aloud at the observance, noting Owens' loyalty, compassion and bravery. Sobbing, she then blew a kiss to the sky.

"I miss you. I love you," she said.

Other attendees brought military relics to the ceremony. John Ely showed attendees a flag once owned by his father, a former Marine. Steve Goldenberg displayed swords used in Belgium in World War I by the grandfather of Aspenite John Marshall Sterling.

The site of the gathering, Aspen Grove Cemetery, is tucked away on the outskirts of Aspen off McSkimming Road. It's the final resting place for many local veterans who were on battlefields as far back as the Civil War.

Numerous local veterans, including Merritt, Crowley, Dan Glidden, Jim Markalunas and others, already have reserved their plots. Merritt referred to the graveyard as "Arlington West."

"We'll be together here at some point," he said.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Tuesday’s Veterans Day service

When: 11 a.m.

Where: Roaring Fork Veterans Memorial, 506 E. Main St.

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