LONGMONT — Three baseball caps rest on a mantle in Donna and Barry Ruehlen’s home in Berthoud.
Each hat symbolizes a stage in their youngest son’s military career.
The first reads “Recruit” from Chad Ruehlen’s training days for the Navy. The second, “USS John C. Stennis,” is for the name of the ship he worked and lived on during his four-year tour. The third, “American Legion,” was given to Chad, a petty officer 2nd class, last fall at his going-away party before he headed back to a war that needed him again.
An older man, a military veteran, asked Chad if he was a member of the American Legion. When the young seaman said no, the older man grabbed a commander hat, inscribed with that title of military brotherhood, gave it to the young veteran and said, “Well, you are now.”
The commonalities shared across generations who know war are blunt: The uniform. The honor. The duty.
But past generations of American military veterans, especially those from the Vietnam War, know their towns, friends and family have not always unconditionally welcomed them upon return.
They, with the help of a local church, want to make sure that dark chapter of American history does not repeat itself.
VineLife Community Church, in collaboration with local veterans organizations, is planning a summertime picnic and community appreciation day to honor all veterans, including the newest generation of returning troops.
The event, which will include food, music and guests of honor, is slated for May 29 at the Boulder County Fairgrounds. The event is still in its planning stages, and coordinators meet at 3:30 p.m. every Wednesday at the American Legion, 315 S. Bowen St.
The picnic also will include booths for financial, emotional, spiritual and health resources for all veterans, coordinators said.
Outreach pastor Holly Varga said the VineLife congregation wanted to connect through issues the community cared about.
When she contacted local veterans groups, including American Legion Post 32, Disabled American Veterans and Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs, to assist in a veteran-centered event, Varga said their collective enthusiasm was ample.
“They really started to own portions of this idea to support our troops,” Varga said. “From a church perspective, God loves us unconditionally, and we want that unconditional ‘welcome back’ for the men and women coming home from war.”
That sentiment speaks volumes to 23-year-old veteran Derreck Duran of Longmont.
Duran, an Army specialist, was injured Sept. 12, 2003, when an explosive device detonated under the Humvee he and five others were riding in as they approached their camp in Mosul, Iraq.
Honorably discharged and now a civilian, Duran still wears the physical and emotional badges of war. The right side of his body, arm and face are peppered with shrapnel. His right eardrum disintegrated in the attack. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has nightmares.
Duran was awarded a Purple Heart on April 22, 2004.
“It took me going into the military to understand holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” Duran said Wednesday. “Before, it was just an excuse to get out of school. Now, this actually applies to me.”
Duran said he appreciated others’ respect for his service, although he has encountered static from those who opposed the Iraq invasion.
He has found kinship with veterans from the wars he had read about in history books as a Skyline High School student. It’s the education only soldiers get: “Cigarettes are as good as cash, toilet paper is gold, food is a crutch and keep your weapon clean.”
Barry Ruehlen, who served as a Green Beret stateside during the Vietnam era, knows how a war can divide a home, a friendship, a country.
“Obviously, during the Vietnam era,” Ruehlen said, “it was not in vogue anywhere across the board to be in the service. It was very difficult to have a normal relationship with normal people once they found out you were in the service.”
Now he sees the potential for his son, Chad, to encounter the same alienation.
Chad Ruehlen, 22, was honorably discharged from the Navy after completing his four-year tour, which included a seven-month stint at sea near Afghanistan. Two months later, he was reactivated as a customs official and now works on the Iraq-Kuwait border.
His father said Americans have learned to differentiate between their opinions about the Iraqi war and the troops serving there.
“At least we can separate our views from the fact there are young men and women with lives and feelings that are there,” Barry Ruehlen said.
Benny Romero, a commander with American Legion Post 32, said that lesson was learned after the Vietnam War when many returning soldiers “were treated like dirt.” Romero was a Navy aviation technician during the Vietnam War.
“We want to show these soldiers now that they are not forgotten,” he said. “That they are still a part of our family and of Longmont.”
Duran said American society has “matured” in its protest or support of a war and the people connected to it.
“People have shown their thanks or gratitude,” he said, “not for going over there and fighting in a war, but for being a soldier.”
Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, contact the following people:
•Benny Romero, commander at American Legion Post 32, 303-434-0552
•John Schriver, adjutant at American Legion Post 32, 303-332-2912
•Holly Varga, outreach pastor at VineLife Community Church, 303-449-3330 Ext. 118
•Karen Townsend, representative with Boulder County Veteran’s Service Office, 303-827-7435
•Ralph Bozella, chairman of Colorado Board of Veteran Affairs, 303-776-3890