Serving us, serving them: More volunteers needed for Garfield County Fair and Rodeo beer garden, Western slope Veterans Coalition says

Michael Stuemky adjusts the U.S. flag hanging above the Western Slope Veterans Coalition office in Glenwood Springs.
Ray Erku/Post Independent

Michael Stuemky fed 75-pound rounds into a 54-caliber artillery gun mount astern. As a gunner’s mate, he also readied 50-caliber machine guns every time a foreign vessel approached. These were his busy days serving aboard the U.S.S. Chandler, a DDG-996 guided-missile destroyer formerly operated by the U.S. Navy. 

Stuemky’s days, however, weren’t all heavy lifting. He remembers dolphins and whales chasing the ship leaving San Diego for Hawaii. He watched starry nights teeter above as the Chandler navigated high seas. He witnessed an armada of fellow destroyers and frigates patrolling the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

“We did more of that when we got back from that and we helped the Coast Guard patrol Baja California,” he said of becoming battle ready. “We followed any vessel out of international waters, looking like they’re smuggling stuff from Mexico to the U.S.”

Stuemky experienced the world while serving in the Navy from 1989 to 1993: 4 a.m. bar nights in Hong Kong. Monkeys climbing around his head in Penang, Malaysia. When the 30 or so of his fellow sailors reached the Southern Hemisphere and grew bored, the main deck turned into a fraternity haze party.

Thirty years later, the Front Range-born, 52-year-old Stuemky lives in a Glenwood Springs encampment.

“What’s next on the bucket list? Be homeless,” he said. “No running water? Check. No electricity? Check.”

It’s only been this way for a short while, Stuemky said — and, some days, there’s help.

Garfield County’s most recent winter was harsh and blustery. Winter snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed peaked at 23.3 inches of snow-water equivalent, at a rate of 35% above average.

Cold, a few months into homelessness, Stuemky found the Western Slope Veterans Coalition. He showed them his DD214 — military service records — and in exchange the coalition’s emergency fund got him a warm hotel room. Later on, WSVC also helped connect him to Glenwood Springs’ overnight program, Feed My Sheep.

“I found myself homeless about a year ago, and these guys stepped up,” Stuemky said of the Veterans Coalition. “Probably the coldest time of the year, they got a hotel for me, which is real nice. It gave me time to orient myself.”

Former U.S. Navy Sailor Michael Stuemky at the Western Slope Veterans Coalition office last week.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The Veterans Coalition is headquartered in the Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center at 801 Colorado Ave. in Glenwood Springs. It was started in 2017 in honor of Beckius and Owens, two Roaring Fork U.S. Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Beckius died by suicide in July 2013. As did Owens, in October 2014.

Veterans Coalition Cofounder John Pettit said each year the WSVC provides $40,000 in assistance to veterans in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties through its emergency fund. It supports hotel stays, mortgage and utility payments, vehicle repairs — the list goes on.

“A lot of times people get out of the military and they don’t know where to turn,” said Pettit, who served in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I kept everything blocked away. That’s the way it was explained to me, anyway. You just put it behind a wall and never really talk about it, and that can be really damaging mentally.

“And some people, if they’ve got no kids, no job, it can mess up your head.”

There are two major fundraisers held in Garfield County that support the Veterans Coalition emergency fund. One is an annual golf tournament at Lakota Links in New Castle. For the other, proceeds are collected from beverage sales at the Garfield County Fair and Rodeo beer garden.

But by late June, WSVC was short on beer garden servers and, currently, it’s asking you — the Garfield County public — to make a small sacrifice and volunteer to serve beer at this year’s fair.

“What I would like to get is about 50 volunteers,” Pettit said, adding that the coalition is likely to raise more than $50,000 for its emergency fund this year. “We have about 110 shifts to fill. Most of the shifts are 5-6 hours.”

Called “Brews for the Brave,” volunteers will help with a variety of needs throughout the course of this year’s fair, slated for July 22-30. Volunteers are being asked to work July 22, then July 26-30. Duty calls for cashiers, beer delivery, stocking and people checking IDs, a news release states.

There will be two early training sessions, including a TIPS session for servers. Those sessions will take place at 6 p.m. July 16 and 10 a.m. July 18 at the Glenwood Springs Elks Lodge, 61939 U.S. Highway 6.

To volunteer, call the WSVC at 970-233-8735.

“The Beer Garden is a fun and easy way for Fair & Rodeo attendees to give back to the many people around our region that have stepped up to serve our country,” WSVC Coalition President Jeremie Oates said in the release. “Events like this really bolster our fundraising efforts, but they only work with the help of the many volunteers that selflessly and generously donate their time.”

The WSVC refers to its emergency fund as “A hand up instead a hand out,” and for people like Stuemky, he likes to return the favor. He spends about 5-10 hours a week volunteering at the Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center. There, he’ll charge electronic devices he uses at his campsite, while he spends the day cleaning the office and, whenever needed, straightening out the U.S. flag that flutters near the front entrance.

On any given day, Stuemky is to give a quick tour of the ham radios, flight simulators and foosball and pool tables in the place.

He also acknowledges just how many local veterans the coalition helps. The WSVC’s fundraising efforts, he said, “are huge.” And as he continues to come back and help out each day, he hopes he can use a VA housing voucher to find a place of his own.

“Maybe someday,” he said, “I won’t be homeless.”

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