Finding Center: Snowmass veteran reflects on life during and after service
Editor’s Note: This story was written in honor of Veterans Day and to recognize all of the men and women who served our country in the military.
When Snowmass Village resident Don Stuber moved to the Roaring Fork Valley over 40 years ago, he was in search of something specific.
“I was trying to find calm in my life. … I was unable to relax, was anxious and ended up here to try to fix that,” Stuber said. “In some ways, it was like starting over.”
Stuber, wearing a camouflage scarf and U.S. Marines Corps jacket, fidgeted with a wide-brimmed hat as he spoke. The Vietnam veteran said it was his nearly two years of experience in the war that caused much of his anxiety and desire to live on the edge — and why it’s taken him much of the rest of his life since to find peace.
“I’m pretty lucky I was able to stumble and fumble my way to reconciliation and being a civilian again without causing serious damage or despair to others,” Stuber said. “But I don’t think I’ll ever be completely healed. It’s an ongoing process and I can keep getting better but I’ll never be perfect.”
In an Aspen coffee shop just before the area’s Veterans Day ceremony at the memorial adjacent to the Pitkin County Administration Building, Stuber talked about the years he served in Vietnam as a Marine.
The Minnesota-native said his dad and his uncles had all served in the military, which is one reason why he decided to enlist in 1967.
The other reason was because he wanted to learn more about the war and why the U.S. was fighting it for himself.
“There was so much controversy around the war I wasn’t sure who to believe and figured one way to find out was to volunteer to go over myself and make my own decisions,” Stuber said.
Stuber, who grew up in aviation, thought he would be recruited to use his air skills to serve. Instead, he was a part of the Marine infantry that fought in the Battle of Hue, one of the war’s longest and bloodiest, and later was responsible for transferring high security, confidential documents and information between military and government officials.
“I was really lucky to be provided the opportunity to find out what was going on myself, which is what I had intended to do,” Stuber said. “I realized the war was not right, but that didn’t disturb or minimize my loyalty to the Marines even though I lost faith in parts of the country and its leaders.”
For Stuber, life in Vietnam depended on his fellow Marines, which he described as a community where things like loyalty and trust were unspoken truths. As a messenger of sorts, he also spent a lot of time alongside print and photojournalists, who he said he developed a lot of respect and admiration for.
After he was discharged in 1969, Stuber attended the University of Minnesota and became involved in the peace movement, attending protests and rallies and pursuing photojournalism, art, and martial arts.
He said he studied yoga and meditation to try and help center himself after returning from Vietnam, but that he struggled to adjust to a normal life.
“I kept looking for the same excitement and adrenaline I found in the war, as bad as that sounds,” Stuber said. “(The military was) really good at training and preparing us to kill but did very little to un-train us. We were dehumanized in a sense.”
Stuber said he began to find calm and center after he moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1976 and started his family. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s when he met Dick Merritt, a longtime Aspen local and Marine veteran, and other local retired military officers that he started to identify himself as a veteran.
“That was the beginning of reconnecting with veterans,” Stuber said.
Since then, Stuber has been active with the area Marine veterans and services aimed at helping retired military adjust back to civilian life.
He’s a board member for Huts for Vets, a local wilderness therapy program free for veterans; has volunteered during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic for the past 16 years and is working on a multimedia project that addresses the different ways people remember wars and how those memories can change.
“Things opened up to me and I realized I had something to offer and share,” Stuber said of identifying as a veteran and working to give back. “I recognize some of the same tendencies in other veterans that I had and I want to be there for them.”
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