Zigging, zagging path leads veteran to Glenwood Springs | PostIndependent.com

Zigging, zagging path leads veteran to Glenwood Springs

Colorado School of Mines graduate reflects on pursuing degree through wartime

An avid hunter and three-time U.S. Army combat vetern, Sgt. Jacob Weigel waits in a treeline south of Glenwood Springs on Saturday for the appearance of a rumored trophy buck. Ike Fredregill
Post Independent

Three-time U.S. Army combat veteran Sgt. Jacob Weigel set his sights on a simple life. Fickle luck and capricious timing would dictate otherwise.

“I believe God has a plan for us all,” Weigel said. “And while my path has zigged and zagged, I believe I am right where I am supposed to be.”

Over the years, Weigel chased his childhood dream of studying geology through the war-torn Middle East and into the Rocky Mountains.

A geologist in all but title, he’s found a home in Glenwood Springs with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I don’t see myself going anywhere else in the near future,” said Weigel, a Forest Service facilities engineer. “I love it here.”

A self-described “momma’s boy” in his childhood, Weigel, 41, didn’t possess the bravado typical of a young Army recruit.

Instead, he enlisted in 2001 — mere months before the Sept. 11 attacks — because of a friend who had recently completed boot camp.

During his friend’s graduation ceremony, Weigel watched as troops were celebrated and commanding officers paid homage to their efforts — a presentation was played for the benefit of the attendees, highlighting the graduating soldier’s best moments and crowning achievements. It was pure propaganda, and Weigel took the bait.

“Boot camp was nothing like the presentation,” Weigel said, chuckling.

Despite the slick ceremony, Weigel was not interested in dedicating a chunk of his life to the military, opting instead to join the U.S. Army Reserve.

“One weekend a month, two weeks a summer,” he recalled. “That’s what they told me, and that’s what I signed up for. That didn’t play out like I expected.”

Safe in the reserves?

On Sept. 11, 2001, Weigel was working through his petroleum supply specialist training at Fort Lee, Virginia, when his instructors told the unit to huddle into formation outside their barracks — about 130 miles south of the Pentagon.

“We didn’t know anything,” Weigel said. “We couldn’t even go into the barracks to watch what was happening on the TV, because they were worried about an attack targeting Fort Lee.”

As Weigel’s unit eventually learned about the attacks, he said the thought of deployment didn’t cross his mind, because the military rarely calls up the reserves to fight overseas.

Born in Pasadena, Texas, Weigel grew up in Albany, New York. The middle child of five, his father worked as a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and his mother was an administrative assistant. He said he wanted to work as a public servant, but he had no real interest in going to war.

When Weigel enlisted in January 2001, he did so with an eye on the future. Rather than combat arms jobs, Weigel considered training as an electrician or a plumber before settling on petroleum supply.

“I wanted to do basic training, because it looked challenging and fun,” he said. “But the Army’s ability to help with money for college was also a big pull. I’ve known since I was in fourth grade that I wanted to be a geologist, and petroleum supply seemed like it could tie in with that.”

Following the 9/11 attacks and Weigel’s graduation from Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee, he tried to return to his regularly scheduled, mostly civilian life.

Less than a year later, however, the unexpected happened.

In 2002, the Army mobilized Weigel’s reserve unit, the Army Reserve 1018th Supply and Service Company, and sent them to Iraq.

There and back again, a soldier’s life

Operation Iraqi Freedom was in its infancy, and Weigel spent his first tour laying oil pipe from Kuwait into Iraq behind the allied invasion forces.

He was in the desert for a year, his studies in limbo. But duty called, and he said found himself enjoying the regimented pace of a soldier’s life.

“The Army really toughened me up,” Weigel said. “I was a momma’s boy and sensitive, very sensitive. But there wasn’t any room for that in the Army.”

Shortly after returning stateside in 2003, Weigel was accepted into the Colorado School of Mines and began classes in 2004.

“I was a C-student — I had no business being at one of the best engineering schools in the country, but I was happy to be there,” he said.

He maintained a high grade point average, but it wasn’t long before his country called again.

From 2005-06, Weigel served his second tour in Iraq with the 264th Army Reserve Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, hauling fuel around the country and based out of Al Taqaddum Air Base, referred to by the soldiers as simply “TQ.”

About four gun trucks escorted his fuel convoys of up to 20 fuel supply trucks, each carrying approximately 7,000 gallons of fuel, across Iraq.

Though the convoys were rarely plagued by the improvised explosive devices that became nearly synonymous with vehicular travel throughout Iraq in the later years of the war, Weigel said they were far from safe.

“Three rocket-propelled grenades hit the tank I was hauling during one run, tilting the truck up on its driver-side wheels,” Weigel said calmly, a slight smile on his lips. “I got out and looked around, but not seeing anything, we moved on.”

When the convoy reached its destination, soldiers gathered around Weigel’s truck with jaws agape.

“Sure enough, there were three holes in my truck,” he said, adding with a laugh, “And like any good soldier, I climbed up top, opened her up and looked inside to see three RPGs floating in the fuel.”

He has a few theories about why the explosives didn’t detonate — they were fired at too close range to arm, the fuel tank’s exterior was too thin to engage their detonation devices or, as was often the case with insurgent weapons, they were duds — but he said he never learned why he was spared a fiery fate that day.

Inanimate objects

Returning home after another year across the “big pond,” Weigel tried to settle back into his studies, but found it difficult to maintain his grades.

“I had to relearn Calculus I while studying Calculus II, and I just had a hard time getting back into it,” he said. “Every time I deployed, my GPA took a hit, and I would have to dig out from a hole.”

He approached one teacher about dropping a class he found particularly challenging, with the intent of retaking it at a later date, but the teacher encouraged him to stay. He did, but it wasn’t long before Uncle Sam needed him to again head for the “sandbox.”

This time around, however, his Denver-based unit reclassified as a combat support battalion and no longer needed multiple petroleum supply specialists. Further interrupting his studies, Weigel needed to train into a new military occupation, and the choices were limited.

“I chose mortuary affairs, because the position was a promotion, and I wanted to get over my lifelong fear of dead bodies,” he said.

For as long as he could remember, Weigel was terrified of the dead. During training, he learned his fear was not of the deceased, but rather the psychological impact caused by funerary services, which made the dead look as though they were sleeping peacefully.

“I came to the understanding that after death the soul has left the body and what was left behind was just an inanimate object, like a tissue box or a pen,” Weigel said. “It’s how I had to think to get through the job.”

Weigel’s educational pursuits were again put on hold as he spent a year from 2008-09 caring for the bodies of dead Americans and Iraqis in Balad, Iraq, the country’s second largest body collection point.

“We could go a week without seeing a single body, then we might get hit with 2-3 a day,” he said. “During one mass casualty event, we processed bodies for 48 hours straight.”

Now in a command position, Weigel said he led his soldiers by example, washing the bodies alongside them, checking for identifying marks and loading them into cooled transport cases.

When he returned from his third and final tour, Weigel said his ability to express emotions — outside of anger — had warped.

Once, when listening to a civilian discuss the tragedy of her son’s recent death, Weigel said he felt nothing and realized something was off. It’s a challenge he said he continues to struggle with — a byproduct of war that separates him from the civilians he works beside.

Right place, wrong time

Back on track at the Colorado School of Mines, Weigel earned a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering in 2010 and his master’s degree in geology specialized in petroleum exploitation in 2014 — just in time for a historic plunge in oil prices.

Weigel said despite having work lined up, the price of oil per barrel dropped so significantly, the Texas-based company started laying off employees before his start date.

After a brief rise in oil prices, a small oil company in Basalt hired Weigel as a geologist in August 2015. Prices dropped again in January 2016, and Weigel found himself again looking for another job.

After four years of working odd jobs for the Roaring Fork Valley Co-op and various other employers, Weigel caught a break.

Through a mutual acquaintance with the Veterans Administration, Weigel was introduced to Greg Rosenmerkel, a retired U.S. Air Force engineer and U.S. Forest Service engineering staff officer for the White River National Forest.

Rosenmerkel also serves as the Forest Service’s local Veterans Special Emphasis Program manager, and after seeing Weigel’s qualifications, Rosenmerkel used the Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA) program to recruit Weigel.

“The Forest Service has a standing mission that veterans make up 25% of all new applicants,” Rosenmerkel said. “With the VRA, Weigel was able to apply without the position being advertised, but he still had to meet all of the qualifications for the position.”

It was February 2020, and the world was about to turn upside down. Weigel waited out the pandemic with the rest of the world, but as others questioned their futures, he had his sights set on finally putting his engineering degree to use.

In July 2020, Weigel’s application was approved, and he was hired as the White River National Forest’s newest facilities engineer.

“It’s been a long road to get here, and it isn’t exactly geology,” he said. “But with the Forest Service, everything is closely tied to geology, so it’s never far from my desk, and I don’t plan on looking back.”

Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at ifredregill@postindependent.com.

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