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To ‘our heroes,’ with love

Steve Benson
Sent out to thousands of servicemen and women serving in the Iraqi war by Cathy Meskel of Rifle, this letter and medallion of St. Michael are representative of the package each recieve. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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Cathy Meskel has mailed more than 9,200 letters of support to troops in Iraq since combat operations began 17 months ago. It has cost her $3,277.”I do it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Meskel, founder of Support Our Soldiers (SOS) in Rifle. “They need to have our support.”Glenwood Springs resident Betty Scranton has been on a mission to account for every service member between Aspen and Rifle who has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. So far, her list contains close to 100 names.”Rather than blanketing all the soldiers together, I try to target the local situations so that no one would be left behind, or forgotten,” Scranton said.In Aspen, local groups and businesses have recently joined forces to collect funds to send care packages to a medical unit stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, where Aspen High School graduate Amber DeLuca is serving. That effort was spearheaded by a local book club and the Friday Men’s Luncheon.”We want to show our support for a young woman who was raised in Aspen,” said Meredith Gracis, one of the aid organizers in Aspen.Support for the military has sprung up all over the Western Slope in the last year and half. Sometimes it’s a one-time effort, as in Aspen. Other times, such as with Homefront Heroes in Grand Junction, hundreds or thousands of members provide ongoing support to the troops and their families. Then there are the smaller groups such as SOS, which have only a few members, and soloist Scranton, who undertake significant personal sacrifices to ensure troops in Iraq will be recognized and never forgotten.Exactly why Scranton and Meskel are so passionate is somewhat of a mystery, although both are driven by similar experiences that occurred more than 35 years ago.At first glance, the reason for Meskel’s commitment seems obvious: Her sister is a soldier in the Army, currently stationed in Taji, Iraq, 30 kilometers north of Baghdad.

But the real source of her passion for supporting troops in combat can be traced back to when she was 11 years old and the Vietnam War was raging.”I started wearing a POW bracelet” in honor of an American pilot who had been shot down and was believed to have been captured by the North Vietnamese, she said.”I don’t know what it was – it was just something that struck my heart,” she said. “Unfortunately, [the pilot] was killed; he dragged himself through the jungle for six months and died in captivity.”His death and the misery Vietnam veterans endured after returning home planted the seeds of her passion.”It’s such a powerful thing in my life, it consumes me all the time,” said Meskel, who owns Nola’s Ark Pet Shop in Rifle.Scranton is also driven by memories of Vietnam. In the summer of 1966, she volunteered to work as a stewardess on flights that were transporting troops to Vietnam. And to this day she is haunted by an encounter she had on one of those flights.”I can remember just racing up and down the aisle, and this young man – he was a redhead and real young-looking – kept stopping me and asking me, ‘Aren’t you afraid? Aren’t you afraid?'”Scranton told him she wasn’t since she was on an airplane and would be returning home soon.”He said to me, ‘Well, I am,'” Scranton remembered.For close to 40 years, Scranton has been tormented by that memory and the agony of the unknown. Who was he? What was his name? Did he survive?”I always think of him all these year. I don’t know what happened to him,” she said. “He was so young; he woke up to the war, to the fear that was inherent, and now we have all these other young kids going over [to war] – we have to support them.”

So Scranton started making a list. But she doesn’t just compile names; she talks to the families and tells them their loved ones will not be forgotten.”This is an ongoing desire of mine to keep this going until the last one comes home,” she said. “And hopefully we can have a measure of peace at that time.”Meskel is on the same mission, though she’s taking just a slightly different path.Every letter she sends to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan contains the same thing: personal information about herself and her family, a St. Michael’s medallion, and her gratitude for their service.The responses she’s received – about 500 letters in the past 17 months – keep her focused on her mission.”The responses I get are so overwhelming, I just cry,” she said. “These letters mean so much to them.” Marcus Kissner, a 26-year-old medic from Grand Junction who served a tour in Fallujah, said getting a letter in the mail – like he did from Hometown Heroes – was like Christmas morning.”You have no idea. Just one letter was so huge, your mood would change completely” he said. “Without it, I don’t know if I would have gotten through [my tour].”The littlest thing meant so much.”Homefront Heroes largely comprises family members who have loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their mission is to take care of their own.

Meskel has made it her mission to care for all the rest.”I can’t imagine being a soldier and receiving nothing, no packages, no mail,” she said. “One soldier wrote me and said his friends and family had quit writing, and that he couldn’t even explain what it meant to get my letter.”Another response over the holidays read, “You made Christmas for at least one soldier better, I will wear this [medallion] always.””I receive hundreds and hundreds of letters like that – I wish I would get more. Every response is just worth the wait,” Meskel said.Despite her efforts, Meskel said she’s only received $200 in donations, and she is running short on funds.”I need addresses of soldiers over there, and I need help. I’m running out of money,” she said. “I’ve put everything into this and I get no [financial] response.”In addition to sending letters and recently clothing, since some troops are now allowed to dress as civilians, Meskel has hung hundreds of yellow ribbons in town and along the Colorado River.”It’s beautiful; there’s not one thing down the street that doesn’t have a ribbon,” she said.Earlier this year, a general from Fort Hood in Texas awarded Meskel the Army Coin of Excellence for her efforts – an honor rarely given to civilians.”I was so overcome,” she said. “It had such a huge impact on me that I’ll never stop.”Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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