Memorial Day scaled down, more somber this year
Relaxed health regulations will allow veterans to sit, stand and walk shoulder-to-shoulder at a scaled-down Memorial Day observation Monday in Aspen.
That personal connection was greatly lacking during the pandemic that broke in March 2020. It will be embraced Monday though more succinctly than in previous years.
“It’s been very difficult for outreach,” said Thomas “T.J.” Bolt, the veteran services officer for Pitkin County. “I always tell (veterans) that I have my phone on me at all times, my email, my text messages. I will talk to them whenever they need.”
Bolt urged veterans needing help to call him at 970-987-4855 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outreach is central to his job, which is to provide help for dislocated and disconnected veterans. In his role with the county, Bolt supports veterans by helping them find employment and pay their bills, and serve as a liaison between vets and the VA hospital.
“I spend a lot of time getting their paperwork in order for the VA hospital,” said Bolt, who lives in Glenwood Springs and serves in the National Guard.
The pandemic has added to isolation for veterans. The monthly coffee and donuts gathering for local vets, for instance, which had held at the Pitkin County Library, hasn’t happened because of public health restrictions. Bolt said he’d like to reinvent the in-person gathering once he gets health-order clearance.
“It was a gathering to get to share ideas and help any veterans that need any guidance,” said Dick Merritt, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a Basalt resident widely involved in veterans affairs and outreach.
Like the rest of the world, Merritt and veterans have made pandemic connections on virtual platforms like Zoom. Those meetings have been vital to staying in touch, but the in-person social gatherings had been the established way to allow veterans to catch up on each other, and see if anybody needed help or assistance.
“It was just to see how everybody was doing. If somebody fell on the ice, we could go visit them,” Merritt said. “That communication just didn’t happen during the pandemic.”
Nationally, more than 12,100 veterans have died due to COVID-19 complications, and nearly 3 million out of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 9 million enrolled veterans have been vaccinated, according to data.
The 85-year-old Merritt, who with his wife were afflicted with COVID-19 in November, said the couple were vaccinated in January. It was a rough go for a few weeks, but they emerged OK, he said.
“The VA has been really good in reaching out to veterans to see if they are getting vaccinated,” he said. “All of my friends have been vaccinated, and the VA has reached out to them and made shots available to them.”
The Memorial Day service in Aspen will include local veteran Dan Glidden, Merritt and others who will once again place a commemorative wreath at the park and read the list of names of Aspen-area residents who died in combat. “Taps” also will be played.
“We will have a very short, silent and sincere ceremony,” said Merritt in a statement about the event. “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.”
Bolt admitted he’s on the younger side for being in charge of veteran services for the county. But the 24-year-old, who grew up in Nederland and joined the Army when he was 17, said he views it as an opportunity to bring new-generation vets into the local fold.
“We call it the Gulf War era, 1991 until present,” he said. “We’ve had such amazing veterans from Vietnam and Korea that really started (the local effort). We need the younger generation of veterans to step up and take their place one day.”
One member of that younger generation was Casey Owens, who was originally from Houston and relocated to the Aspen area, where he worked with Challenge Aspen and was a paralympic athlete. Both of Owens’ legs were amputated after his Humveee struck a land mine when it was on a rescue mission in Baghdad on Sept. 20, 2004, and he also suffered from post-traumatic stress order and traumatic brain disorder.
The Purple Heart recipient decided to take his life Oct. 15, 2014. He was 32.
On June 13, Western Slope Veterans Coalition will reopen its expanded Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center. The center provides a hub for information, action, programs and activities for veterans in the three-county region of Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin. Details are available at http://www.westernslopeveterans.org.
“It’s now a comfortable space for veterans to drop in, connect with other vets, perform research and access services,” said John Pettit, Marine Corps veteran and founder of the WSVC.
The added space now allows the center to provide free computer and internet access for vets’ use, a meeting facility, a library, game room and recreation space.
The center, which is located at 801 Colorado Ave., currently is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday though Friday.