vets

Local veterans carry the colors of our nation down Main Street during this year’s Fourth of July parade. (File photo)

Since 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson established Armistice Day on Nov. 11 to recognize and express gratitude for those who fought in World War I, veterans have been celebrated. The fighting in that war stopped on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, and so Nov. 11 was imbued with significance.

Renamed Veterans Day in 1954, the day, which became a national holiday in 1947, is observed with parades, dinners and other events honoring the men and women who have served in American wars. This year, Veterans Day falls on Monday. Federal employees will have a day off from work.

Not to be confused with Memorial Day, which remembers fallen soldiers in America’s wars, Veterans Day is very much for the living. It’s an excellent opportunity to thank a veteran in person for their service.

In Telluride, the Elks Lodge No. 692 hosted its Veterans Day dinner Friday evening, a popular well-attended event that serves a gourmet meal to veterans and active duty members of the military for free.

Bob Beer is a local veteran who rarely misses the Elks Lodge dinner. He especially enjoys the camaraderie with his fellow veterans.

“It’s nice to share time and experiences with other veterans,” Beer said. “People who haven’t served don’t quite understand.”

As a veteran — Beer served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1966-68, which included a year in Saigon — Beer marches in the Fourth of July parade and enjoys and appreciates the grateful reaction the vets receive from parade viewers. Having a day of recognition is necessary, he said, but he would like to see a world at peace.

“My sincere wish is that we would stop creating wars,” he said.

Cindy Wyszynski is a stalwart member of the lodge, active in nearly every aspect of Elks events and services. She noted that given humanity’s historical link to war that there have, unfortunately, always been veterans. And some, like the men and women who were drafted and fought in Vietnam, were not treated well upon their return.

“We didn’t welcome them back,” she said. “This is an opportunity to let them know we’re grateful.”

As time has passed, the medical profession has a better understanding of veterans’ health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — once called “shell shock” — and exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic chemical compound used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Countless military personnel and civilians were exposed during that war, including Wyszynski’s father who, 12 years ago, was diagnosed with a cancer that was directly linked to Agent Orange.

Another aspect of Friday’s dinner at the Elks Lodge was the presence of representatives from the Tri-County Health Network and the Veterans Administration. Given the greater awareness of the range of mental health issues veterans experience, outreach from those agencies at a gathering of veterans is significant, she said.

“Services are lacking on the Western Slope, particularly in rural areas,” Wyszynski said, adding that 22 veterans take their lives every day. “We want them to know there’s help.”

San Miguel County has a Veterans Services Office, which serves as a liaison between veterans and the VA. According to the county website, the office “was established by state law to advise and assist veterans, their dependents, and their survivors concerning any VA benefits which such person may be, or may have been, entitled to receive under the laws of the United States or the State of Colorado.”

Jim Botenhagen, a U.S. Navy veteran, is the certified Veterans Service Officer and is an advocate for veterans working to understand their benefits with the VA. Botenhagen can link veterans with a number of services, including obtaining discharge papers, filing claims, information and access to benefits like pension, health care, education, home loans, survivor death benefits, burial, and much more. The office is a good local resource for veterans navigating the “maze of red tape frequently involved in direct dealings with government agencies,” the website reads. All services through the county office are free. For more information, contact Botenhagen at jimb@sanmiguelcountyco.gov or 970-728-4501.