An Essay: The battle back home, by Kim Doose
Special to the Post Independent
About Western Slope Veterans Coalition
Western Slope Veterans Coalition (WSVC) is a portal to the information, action, programs and activities that support, honor and connect veterans in the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys.
WSVC is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) supported by, and open to, all citizens, organizations and businesses that support veterans. The Coalition holds quarterly meetings and events, providing a forum for information sharing, best practices and the coordination of resources for veterans.
WSVC is headquartered in the Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center at 803 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. The Resource Center opened in November 2017 and provides a place for volunteers, WSVC staff, and veterans and their families to gather for programs, services, and private consultations.
War has a dark way of intertwining lives in sometimes tragic and unexpected ways. For four local combat Marines, their stories would begin in Vietnam, wind through Iraq and Afghanistan, and land in downtown Glenwood Springs.
John Pettit enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1966 after attending a year in college and was eventually deployed to Hill 881S, Khe Sanh, in South Vietnam Dec. 26, 1967.
For 117 days, 77 of which Pettit and 400 comrades were under constant siege, they remained entrenched and isolated on the Hill. By the time they were extracted, 43 of Pettit’s fellow Marines were dead, and India and Mike Companies had endured 90 percent casualties. Approximately 200 of the original 400 Marines eventually left the Hill.
For the next 47 years Pettit refused to talk about it. That is, until October 2014, when Pettit, by then a Glenwood Springs resident, and Basalt resident Richard Merritt, a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel and fellow Vietnam veteran, discussed the suicides of Jesse Beckius and Casey Owens.
The two local Marine Corps veterans took their lives within 15 months of each other after returning to the valley from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jesse Beckius graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 2005, joined the United States Marine Corps, and was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2009 as a member of a scout sniper team where he worked as an optics technician. After four years of active duty, he left the Marine Corps, took college classes, and later worked for Halliburton and Lockheed Martin. While working for Lockheed, Jesse spent more than a year in Afghanistan.
Casey Owens grew up in Houston, Texas, but lived in Aspen. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 and wanted to be a “lifer” — a long-term military career officer.
Owens did two tours of duty. In Iraq, during the initial invasion in 2003, he witnessed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. On his second tour, he was a gunner and saw a lot of action in Al Anbar, the largest province in Iraq.
One day, his squad was called out on a mission to rescue an American sniper who had been injured. During an ambush, they mistakenly drove over a double-stacked IED which threw Owens from the vehicle. The amputation of both legs, a traumatic brain injury, and severe PTSD ended his military career. Among his many medals and citations was a Purple Heart.
The deaths of Beckius and Owens not only hit the community hard, but it felt devastatingly personal to their fellow Marines, Pettit and Merritt, both of whom believed that the deaths could have been prevented. They vowed they would do everything they could to help ensure it would never happen again in this valley.
In 2014, they created a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization called Western Slope Veterans Coalition (WSVC) to increase coordination and resources in support for the approximately 7,200 veterans who live in the communities from Aspen to Parachute and throughout the Eagle Valley. On Nov. 10, 2017, WSVC opened the Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center after Garfield County donated office space for a lease of $1 per year.
In a previous war, Owens would have been killed in action, but medical technology saved him. And though many veterans often find themselves grateful that they were the “lucky ones” — plucked from death’s grip in the battlefield, they often return home and feel like they’ve been dropped face first back into civilian life, now with devastating physical and psychological wounds.
Beckius and Owens were strong men; physically, socially, and mentally. They were caring, compassionate, enthusiastic about life, and had a solid support system of friends and family. But when they returned from their deployments, they knew they were different. So did their families who supported them when both men sought treatment.
Ironically, in 2008, Owens testified to Congress about the lack of care and treatment of veterans. Later, families and friends would come to the same conclusion. It wasn’t the war that killed them. It was the aftermath.
Pettit and Merritt believe that acknowledging the bond between military comrades can be the missing link in a veteran’s recovery. At the Jesse Beckius/Casey Owens Veterans Resource Center in downtown Glenwood Springs, a tribe of veterans can sometimes do what others cannot.
Older veterans who have been through a tour of duty understand the anger, the angst, and the loneliness a veteran may feel not just after coming home, but throughout their lives. The center can also provide assistance in preparing a resume, advice for finding a job, guidance for enhancing computer skills, and resources to improve their quality of life. It’s the place Pettit could have used in 1968 after returning from Vietnam.
War is unforgiving and unfathomable, but it’s cruelest when soldiers survive the war only to lose their battle at home.
Kim Doose is an author and screenwriter. She works in health care and is pursuing a master’s degree in healthcare administration. This column series is part of an internship through Colorado Mountain College for the Western Slope Veteran’s Coalition. Veterans who wish to be featured in upcoming stories may contact John Pettit at email@example.com
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