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Legion, others help veterans survive and thrive

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By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff

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The distinct camaraderie that is such an intrinsic part of military culture is an oft-cited perk of serving, and losing it can be one of the hardships of transitioning into civilian life.

That’s why opportunities like the Veterans Day dinner at Carbondale’s American Legion Post 100 are so popular — but vets don’t have to hold out for November to enjoy a space to call their own.

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“The place has meaning,” said Dave Jackson, who has served as the local American Legion Commander for three years. “We just have a blast here. We have weddings; we have too many funerals. We’ve got … rifles, so we can do all the salutes,” he said. “It’s a family, it really is.”

The building at 97 N. Third St. has served as a space for veterans to socialize and support one another since 1969, but its history extends even beyond then.

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“That picture that’s hanging above the bar is from 1909, but the building was built in 18-something. It was the train station,” Jackson said. He’s currently navigating the pathway to obtaining official recognition as a historical building. “I can’t believe it’s not [already],” he said. He will likely have to wait until he retires in February before he will be able to invest the time required to file the necessary paperwork. But, he said, it will be worth it, as the distinction will mean the local American Legion post will be eligible for more grant monies.

“We’re a nonprofit, and we struggle a lot, but we get through it,” Jackson said. “I was able to get the place painted this year. It wasn’t going to make another year; the damage was going to be irreversible.”

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Most of the organization’s revenues come from gambling and fundraising socials. A lot  of that money goes to fund local scholarships and general support. The nonprofit awards six $1,000 scholarships every year.

While monetary support depends on available funds, Jackson makes sure the American Legion is able to provide a support system for veterans who need it in other ways, too. Often, that means helping a vet new to the area find reliable employment.

“As long as they prove who they are, [if] they’re going to live here, we find them jobs,” he said. “Can’t find them a place to live [due to lack of funds], but we can find them an income. I’ve been here pretty much my entire life, and from one end of the Valley to the other, I’ve got a lot of friends,” Jackson said of the importance of having a network in the area. “Everybody works together.”

Jackson, for his part, does not make an income working at the American Legion. “I don’t get paid a penny. The only people that get paid here are the bartenders, and we got a guy that comes once a week and he cleans. I maintain the place; it’s all for the good,” he said.

In the back, Jackson keeps a book that serves as one of the records of the American Legion’s legacy in Carbondale. It looks like something out of a fantasy novel, with its brown leather and golden seal on the cover. The pages are yellowed and the notes all handwritten in black marker. Black-and-white photographs documenting the evolution of the building are taped onto nearly every other page. “This book got so bad, I had to make new hinges for it,” Jackson said. One page commemorates the American Legion’s founding crew being able to burn their mortgage (they bought the building for $100 but had to take out a $6,000 loan to create the foundation and make necessary renovations to the building). A handwritten note reads: “We were not rich, but we were proud.” The words still ring true today.

Resource center opens in Glenwood

Veterans Day weekend was particularly celebratory this year for John Pettit, a Vietnam veteran and founder of the Western Slope Veterans Coalition. After almost three years of hosting weekly coffee-and-doughnut gatherings at the Glenwood Springs Library, the Coalition opened a brick-and-mortar resource center at 803 Colorado Ave. in downtown Glenwood Springs.

“[The building] had been empty for four years,” Pettit said. “The County] gutted it and remodeled the whole thing; it’s amazing.” In addition to the surprise of having a dedicated building — the County is leasing the building for $1 — the Coalition received several donations in the form of tables and chairs and even a computer system in order to create the space, he said. “Everybody’s really chipped in.”

The center is named after Jesse Beckius and Casey Owens, two Glenwood locals who served in the Marine Corps. Beckius committed suicide in July 2013 — 15 months later, Owens did as well.

“We got together and said, ‘we gotta try to do something so we don’t have any more of these in this Valley,’” Pettit said about founding the coalition. “It was kind of an idea that became a mission that finally became a reality is the way I look at it.”

The grand opening ceremony for the Jesse Beckius-Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center, was Nov. 10, which was also the Marine Corps 242nd birthday. About 200 people attended.

“There were so many people that turned up in support,” said Yadira Guthrie, a newly retired army veteran who volunteers at the center. “I was so, so excited. It’s something we’ve needed for awhile.”

Nov. 15 was Guthrie’s last active day in the army. “It’s bittersweet,” she said of her retirement. “When you grow up with the military, that’s all you know, it’s kind of hard to go back.” After almost 12 years of active duty, Guthrie suffered a traumatic brain injury that required surgery, and she is no longer medically able to serve. She wanted to stay involved in the veteran community, she said, so when her husband read an article about the resource center’s opening, she reached out to Pettit about volunteering.

“We’re here to help the vets. A lot of veterans don’t know about what they qualify for [in terms of benefits],” Guthrie said, adding that she unnecessarily went into student-loan debt because she wasn’t aware that she qualified for aid through the GI Bill.

“The suicide rate is unacceptable,” Pettit said of the statistics. “There’s 43,000 suicides in the U.S. a year, generally, and out of that, 10,000 of them are veterans. Twenty-two suicides a day across the country — it’s way above the national average.”

Pettit finished his more-than 12-month tour in Vietnam in 1968. “When I came back, it was pretty much you just figure it out,” he said about his transition. He went back to college and finished a degree in biology. “It was difficult to try to stay focused. I did graduate finally and went on with the rest of my life, but what happens is this catches up to you. I had survivor’s guilt, if you will. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I spent 38 years denying I had any issues, never even thinking about the military. If it was brought up, I’d walk away.”

Guthrie can relate. “I was part of the invasion into Iraq. I went to Iraq like seven months after I graduated from high school,” she said. She would later serve in both Kuwait and Afghanistan. “I myself suffered from PTSD, and that was the hardest stuff for me to say: ‘I need help. I need to go talk to somebody,’” she said.

Organizations like the American Legion and the Western Slope Veterans Coalition are dedicated to trying to minimize veterans’ challenges in a way that’s feasible. “We are not going to be the psychologists,” Pettit said of the resource center. “We have a vehicle to put the two parties together. The veteran needs to come in, and we can find somebody that can help. That’s the plan.”

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