Aspen Elks Lodge works to help area veterans, active military | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Elks Lodge works to help area veterans, active military

VETERANS DAY EVENTS

MARINE CORPS BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

What: A celebration and recognition of the U.S. Marine Corps birthday with a special presentation from Kirstie Ennis, a marine veteran and 2019 Pat Tillman Award for Service recipient. All local marines and friends are invited.

When: 11 a.m. Sunday

Where: Aspen Grove Cemetery flagpole

VETERANS DAY CEREMONY

What: A ceremony commemorating U.S. veterans and their service through candle lighting and flag folding ceremonies, performances and speeches by local officials. Open to the public.

When: 11 a.m. Monday

Where: Veterans Memorial Park, adjacent to the Pitkin County Courthouse

ANNUAL VETERANS DAY LUNCH

What: The annual Aspen Elks luncheon for Veterans Day Ceremony attendees.

When: Monday, after the Veterans Day Ceremony

Where: Aspen Elks Lodge, 510 E. Hyman Ave.

Of the thousands of flights that take off from and land at the Denver International Airport, there was one in late October that was quite unlike the rest.

As the plane neared touchdown to the Mile High City, its flight attendants had an important question for 29 passengers: What did they miss most about their daily lives while serving in the military?

Each of the World War II, Vietnam War and Korean War veterans gave a variety of different responses. When asked if they missed “mail calls” and hearing from their loved ones, most said yes, they never felt like they received enough mail.

And with that response, the flight attendants got on the loud speaker, announced a mail call and handed each veteran a large, manila envelope of letters, photos and drawings from both family members and complete strangers.

“Every single soldier got a piece of mail from their children, grandchildren and all sorts of people telling them how thankful they were for what they did,” recalled Mark Lee, a longtime Aspen local and Aspen Elks Lodge No. 224 member who was on the flight. “Just seeing the looks on those guys’ faces and the tears, it just blew me away.”

The plane mail call was one of the most memorable experiences Lee highlighted as he looked back on the recent Rocky Mountain Honor Flight he served on as a guardian, or volunteer, in late October.

For three full days, Lee and over two dozen other guardians accompanied 29 veterans on a trip to tour the country’s national monuments and war memorials in Washington D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

“Just the cheers you would hear from all around you and the smiles you’d see on the veterans’ faces, especially the Vietnam vets, was special,” Lee said. “They would say, ‘You know, I’ve never been appreciated since I’ve been home from ’Nam. … The honor flights are all about giving them respect for what they did to fight for our country.”

Now, just a few weeks post-honor flight, Lee and his wife, Karen Carner, are working with support from the Aspen Elks to pursue a similar honor flight program for Vietnam War veterans living in the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding communities.

Lee said he is not a veteran, but his wife’s late husband served in Vietnam and died by suicide, which sparked Lee to want to do more for the nation’s military officers.

“I’ve always had a big place in my heart for the vets but when we got together we really decided we’ve got to do more to support veterans and stop the suicides in this country,” Lee said of his and his wife’s mission.

BRINGING IT HOME

For Lee and Carner, giving back to local veterans stems from the Aspen Elks Lodge, which they are both active members of.

The lodge is one of roughly 2,000 in the country’s Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, a fraternal organization founded over 150 years ago to promote charity, patriotism and community, and was established in Aspen in 1891.

But while Lee described his plans to meet with the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Honor Flight nonprofit leaders next month and start the process of organizing a similar cross-country program out of Aspen, he also highlighted some of the other local Elks Lodge programs both in place and in the works that are aimed at supporting veterans.

From helping organize one of the largest winter sports clinics for disabled vets of its kind in the world, to recently starting up a care package program for deployed military officers from Colorado, the lodge is working to ensure active and retired military and their families feel honored and supported.

“One of our mission statements is ‘Every day is Veterans Day for the Aspen Elks.’ When their service ends, ours begins,” said Fred Venrick, longtime Aspen Elk and veteran services leader.

The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, an annual five-day adaptive recreation and rehabilitation experience in Aspen-Snowmass sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, is definitely the Elks’ longest-running effort to give back to veterans.

Last year, Venrick and Bob Cook, the Aspen Elk who oversees the winter sports clinic, said the local Elks helped serve roughly 400 veterans and their families more than 2,600 lunches, working alongside other area volunteers for over 4,000 hours to put on the winter sports clinic.

But despite the Aspen Elks’ efforts with the clinic and proclaimed focus on patriotism since their establishment, its current Veterans Services Committee has only just recently focused on doing more for local military.

“About three years ago, we decided we needed to do more, that we could do a lot more because we felt the talent in our lodge is just amazing,” Venrick said.

On a recent morning over breakfast at Hickory House, Venrick and Cook talked about their Veterans Services Committee efforts to create an all-women’s subcommittee, and to start up local programs similar to Rocky Mountain Honor Flights and Pets for Vets, a national nonprofit that pairs rescue dogs with vets in need of a service companion.

According to the two U.S. Marine Corps veterans, there are roughly 8,000 of their peers living in the Colorado Elks Association’s Mountain District, which includes Aspen, Craig, Glenwood Springs, Gunnison, Leadville, Rangely, Rifle, Salida and Summit County. The duo feels many of these veterans have been overlooked.

MATCHING VETS WITH SERVICES

Yet, the Elks aren’t the only ones working to support Aspen area veterans. According to Brian Littlejohn, veteran services officer for Pitkin County, there are a lot of local groups who donate funds or provide services to help military and their families.

“One of my challenges in this role is to figure out who all of the different entities are and the services they offer for veterans,” Littlejohn said. “It’s really encouraging to see how much the community wants to help out … and the Elks seem really motivated to help veterans.”

Littlejohn said Pitkin County Veterans Services mainly works to connect resident veterans with the resources they need, which isn’t always easy. There aren’t a lot of medical services for veterans in the valley, and it can be expensive for them, like anyone else, to find a way to live here, he said.

However, with the help of nonprofits like the Elks, Littlejohn feels confident in being able to help area veterans who may slip through the cracks.

“Like any rural community in Colorado, this can be a tough place to be,” Littlejohn said, “but the silver lining is there are a lot of people who care and are willing to help in any way they can.”

Cook and Venrick are two of those people, and both hope the Elks’ ability specifically to support vets continues to grow.

In the near future, the lodge will host its annual Veterans Day luncheon Monday, and plans to send about 50 care packages to Colorado National Guard members serving in Afghanistan before Thanksgiving.

With help from its members, Cook and Venrick said they feel their local lodge is up for meeting the needs of Aspen-area veterans and active military, and for fulfilling its original mission.

“Helping children and vets, that’s just what we do as Elks,” Cook said.

“We were built to take care of veterans,” Venrick added. “So as long as there are veterans, we’ll take care of them.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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