Departed military veterans honored Monday
The man had served 33 years in the military. He was 50 years old and was walking along the highway with nothing except the clothes he was wearing when Ute Mountain Ute member Terry Knight picked him up.
Knight, dressed in green camo fatigues, recounted the incident in Ouray Memorial Cemetery Monday morning as part of the Memorial Day remembrance hosted by the Southern Ute Veterans Association.
The man told Knight he could make a bomb out of anything, and he had as part of his service in the Middle East. "He said after 33 years the Army kicked him out because he wasn't progressive enough. He said he did a lot of thinking about all the things he did over 33 years," Knight said.
The man was walking because he no longer had a truck. He didn't have a truck because he'd tried to commit suicide by driving it head-on into another vehicle. Both he and the other driver survived, Knight said. The man had tried to kill himself "because he felt there was nothing for him here. He had nothing." All he had was the jeans and T-shirt he was wearing.
"He said as he was walking, he thought about stepping out in front of a car since he couldn't do it in his truck," Knight recounted. "I told him, 'You shouldn't think like that.' I called him my grandson. He looked at me and smiled. I told him, 'You are all right.'"
The much less solemn sounds of the Southern Ute Bear Dance could be heard in the distance from the cemetery and its rows of white wooden crosses, many of them marked "unknown."
The day's remembrance started in Southern Ute Veterans' Park with ceremonial drumming and singing, raising of the U.S., POW and Southern Ute Tribal flags, the Pledge of Allegiance by students from the Southern Ute Montessori Academy, and singing of the National Anthem by Marlena Begay. Later in the cemetery, she also sang "Amazing Grace."
"Every day that goes by should be recognized as a special day for our veterans that have passed on," said master of ceremonies Howard Richards Sr., a Vietnam veteran. "As veterans, it doesn't matter what color we are, what shape we are... We are all brothers to the end. It doesn't matter what conflict we served in."
He urged spectators, "Reach into your heart and try to remember what this day is about. Teach the young people what this day is about."
Featured guest speaker Marvin Trujillo from Laguna Pueblo, who served four tours in Iraq, added, "When we lose our veterans, it's not necessarily a day of sorrow but a day of remembrance, celebrating their service."
Vietnam veteran Rod Grove cited the tribal legacy of two departed fellow veterans, Tribal Chairman Leonard Burch and Executive Officer Eugene Naranjo. "We didn't have a problem getting things done when these two men were in power," he said.
Ceremonial Pendleton blankets with a military service pattern were presented in their honor to Burch's daughter Lynette Sage and Naranjo's widow, Dixie. Trujillo was presented with a Pendleton blanket vest.
Richards said Burch and Naranjo had the vision for the Veterans' Association in 1986. The group has been around for 28 years and members are aging, and dealing with illnesses. Some are service related, such as from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed from the air onto the jungles in Vietnam to make it harder for enemy fighters to hide there.
Richards and Terry Knight both cited recent news reports of problems with Veterans Administration health care, of long delays in getting care and VA staffers doctoring records to make it look like vets were getting care within 14 days.
"Veterans have come back with mental and physical problems," Richards said, and called on the VA "to step up and take care of the veterans." But he added, "It's old news. We've gone to the different clinics in Albuquerque and Grand Junction and experienced these things. Hopefully Congress can act and get the VA to do its job on behalf of us."
Knight said, "This VA thing, it's just not there for them," such as the man walking along the highway.
Richards lamented that the tribe's younger veterans aren't joining the Veterans' Association. "We hear it's only for the Vietnam veterans. You (younger veterans) need to step up, participate!"
At the cemetery, Knight also wished more veterans were present. He lamented that earlier in the morning at Towaoc, only three veterans and a few other people showed up for a ceremony, with no singers.
"What is it? Why?" he asked. "We will ask the Creator to fix it somehow, ask for the courage and wisdom to go on in a beautiful way. Continue on. What else are we going to do? No matter what happens, we still have to walk tall. Let the Creator take care of it."