Andersen: Independence Day for veterans
Col. Dick Merritt recalls how Vietnam veterans were pelted with water balloons the first time he marched in the Aspen Fourth of July parade some 20 years ago. After leaving the Marine Corps, Merritt had a hard time admitting he was a Vietnam veteran.
Many Vietnam vets have felt the same stigma that stung Merritt. They refused to acknowledge their service for fear of being vilified from the taint of an unpopular war. Many vets, like Dan Glidden, were draftees who had little choice.
Glidden, who serves on the Huts for Vets board along with Merritt, describes a painful homecoming.
“Veterans today have it much better than we did,” says Glidden, an Aspen police officer.
“When I came home, I got this,” he says, demonstrating the double-middle-finger salute.
For Glidden and thousands of other Vietnam vets, you either served, fled to Canada or faced a jail sentence. These same draftees endured unimaginable trials in Vietnam. Being spit upon when they came home was the final ignominy.
Contemporary veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes qualify Glidden’s remark. They are not spat upon, but they are ignored and forgotten. Both are indelible humiliations.
In Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley today, things are different. Here, thanks to veteran activists like Merritt, Glidden and others, veterans of all wars walk with pride in the Aspen parade, saluting to standing ovations from cheering crowds.
Meanwhile, many of the younger veterans have yet to gain their independence from the trauma of war and the long-term costs they pay as psychological dividends to the military-industrial complex. The average suicide rate among veterans is 22 per day. That grim statistic speaks to despair, isolation and an inexorable sense of futility.
Many of these veterans signed up for the military before they had finished high school. A high percentage did so as true patriots or as legacy soldiers who honored their family forebears. One veteran told me that his male ancestors served in every major military conflict in American history — including the Revolutionary War.
As young men and women, these veterans moved from parental authority to school authority to military authority. Only after separating from service did they have to face living on their own. Not only do they struggle with mission and purpose without the support of their fellow soldiers, but many end up alone in a world that shows no care or understanding for what they’ve sacrificed.
At Huts for Vets, we bring veterans together in the wilderness for an opportunity to “normalize” their experiences, to realize that others share the stories they all need to tell. This summer, we’re empowering 10 Huts for Vets alumni to serve as wilderness guides and trip leaders through our programs at the 10th Mountain Huts.
One of our alums is a Special Forces veteran who served 12 years in Afghanistan. Jon just completed his first year studying philosophy at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He will return in July to co-moderate a men’s program at Margy’s Hut along with another alumnus, Tony, a former paratrooper who is dedicating himself to studying veteran psychology.
An alumna from last year, Emily Vorland, was recently featured in a two-page spread in Time magazine describing the sexual harassment she endured in the military. Emily will return this summer to share her experiences and insights with other women veterans who have suffered the same.
Our goal at Huts for Vets is to create teams of veterans to run our programs with a vet-to-vet approach that our team psychologist, Dr. Gerald Alpern, endorses in his new book, “Vets for Vets.” Alpern describes the incomparable healing that can come from veterans helping other veterans as counselors and peer mentors.
In our fourth year, Huts for Vets is gearing up for our biggest-ever summer. We will take more than 50 veterans into the wilderness to the 10th Mountain Huts. A prestigious Chairman’s Grant, recently bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will help us with this mission.
So give a cheer for veterans on the Fourth, and let them know you care. And if you meet Merritt and Glidden, give them a salute!
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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