Rogers: Aspen honors vets big time |

Rogers: Aspen honors vets big time

Aspen Times editor Don Rogers
Courtesy photo

Liberal town, hah! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such energy poured into a Veterans Day as the commemoration at the Aspen firehouse, and I’ve seen a lot of these across the country.

Oh sure, there were all the usual platitudes. All easy to dismiss, perhaps, if you haven’t served, if you never saw combat and let’s pray you did not, as I did not, but my father and his father saw up close.

My father as a boy lived near enough Pearl Harbor to learn quickly it was no drill. My mother’s story had him watching from the roof of his home, planes buzzing everywhere. With a little roll of his eyes, he said he slept through much or all of it. He would have been 7.  

His father soon returned to the Navy as a chief petty officer and sent my dad and his mother to ride out the war in Lincoln, Nebraska. There are all kinds of consequences from war. One was my hapa haole uncle we only discovered via a few years ago. My very dignified and upright grandfather had a more interesting life than was let on, it turns out.

Hey, I’m thankful. Uncle Andy is a delight. Thoughtful, philosophical, and full of good humor. I only hate him a little for being 6-2 and playing Division I basketball on scholarship at Penn back in the day. The game I loved never loved me back like that, the shortest and scrappiest on my high school team.  

My dad, all 5-8 of him, found himself drafted and shipped off to Korea toward the end of that war. He was smart enough to keep clear of the front, clever enough to discover his IQ score was off the charts (not that this helped him much, I suspect), and was called home for the big casualty in his life, his dad, felled by a heart attack.

I fell into that sweet spot, peace time, when I graduated from high school and dutifully went down to register for the draft. But that had ended years before, and though I entertained the idea while going with friends to visit recruiters — freaking out my mom especially — I never bit.

Not many years later I signed up with the Forest Service to fight fire, at the time more deadly work than military service.

Life Experience

I believe I learned many of the same lessons about myself that I would have learned in the military:

Dealing with the chance of being killed — from fire, everything to do with the helicopters we often rode, boulders and trees on mountainsides, driving to and from assignments, chainsaws, sharpened hand tools (even shovels), bulldozers, air tankers, hazards everywhere. Throwing on long hours that can only dull the senses atop that — 12, 24, 48, once 60 straight when IC lost track of us cutting line to timberline at Kings Canyon and then firing our way back down.  

Sleeping when you can, working night or day, night and day, the marathon sometimes well beyond what we call ultras. The grind during big seasons, nearly always on the line or on the road, away. Dreaming of brush, forests, flames, but mostly of pounding stobs and beating dirt as lead super-P, my role most of my time on the crew.

This can’t help but build and reveal character, teach you the harsh lessons about your limits and how far beyond those we each are capable of going. I thrived, which built an underlying confidence about life, topping out as acting captain and responsible for half my hotshot crew (and their lives) based in backcountry Santa Barbara.

This is still my proudest period. But it all ended with a knee injury playing basketball that later washed me out of smokejumper training and firmly into newspaper journalism, which somehow I thought I could do even before I knew how to type and with an education in the subject that amounted to the community college class I left after a few weeks to take my first reporting job.

Knowing myself this way, I’m glad for missing Vietnam before my time and Iraq-Afghanistan afterward. I went for the most “elite,” grittiest firefighting there was, whole hog. I believe I would have been fully stupid enough to do the same if I had been in the military during wartime.

That was what I learned most essentially in the Forest Service. Nothing to do with grand causes, I suspect. Something burns in us — I believe all of us — and this thing burned in me.

I think it still does.

Ted Sveum

One of my roommates in Santa Barbara who told me about the Forest Service became the co-pilot of Tanker 88, a Cj-119 based at the local airport. We argued over beers who had the more dangerous job — me among the ground pounders far from water, or those crazy air tanker pilots twisting their beasts into steep canyons to bail us out.

Alas, he “won” when the end of a wing flew off as they made a drop on a small fire a couple of hours away from my station. We mustered on a day off and arrived just as the pieces that could be found were all black bagged. We found the wing’s clean end, and of course couldn’t miss the burned bulk and crater it dug. The fire it started was effectively out, and we had a long overnight mop-up shift.

And so I learned that awful other thing about military service. Ted Sveum is a name I don’t forget, either.

Ted and his chief pilot didn’t get the pageantry in their memorials, nor would they have wanted that. But they gave all, as much as those we honored Friday in the firehouse.

Maybe the firehouse was doubly impactful for me, then, impressed with how Aspen the liberal town commemorated its veterans with such care and attention on this day. Here was a side to the city that stunned me in such a humbling way. And allowed me to remember Ted.  

Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at