by Marissa Lorenz
When it comes to thinking about veterans and Veterans Day, many will have the image of grandfathers in parades, maybe fathers and uncles telling stories of faraway places and heroic deeds. Occasionally, some may remember the story of a mother, aunt, or grandmother who was a female pioneer in military service.
Seldom is the image of someone younger than ourselves, even rarer to envision a veteran the age of our own children or even our grandchildren–those who may be veterans today or may be the veterans of tomorrow.
And indeed, the highest numbers of American active-duty military personnel in the last 100 years occurred during World War II, when there were over 12 million active-duty military personnel in 1945, and during the peak years of the Vietnam Conflict (1968-’69), when numbers went up again but culminated in 1968 with 3,547,902 active-duty personnel. (With an active draft, the US military drafted 2.2 million men between 1964 and 1973.)
But as that armed effort wound down, so did the number of US military recruits (and draftees). Enrollment declined even further with the end of the Cold War. And by the year 2000, there were only 1,384,338 active military personnel across the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
In subsequent years, those numbers have continued to decline, especially following the Iraqi surge in the latter 2000s.
In 2015, military participation was over 5% lower than it was in 2000. The Army hit a low of 471,271 active personnel in 2016. The Navy low was recorded in 2012 at 314,339. The Air Force had only 307,326 active personnel in 2015, and the Marine Corps counted only 183,417 personnel that same year.
But trends seem to have taken a turn in the last couple of years.
In 2020, numbers had increased to a decade high of 1,333,822 active military personnel, with only the Marine Corps continuing to see
a drop in numbers, according to Statistica.com.
In 2021 that number has gone up by nearly another 54,000, or another 4%. And among those fortifying America’s military defenses are several recent Grand County graduates.
Among the 29 students to graduate from West Grand High School in spring 2021, five (17%) have chosen to pursue a journey of military service.
Alejandro “Jando” Castanon is currently completing basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California. He will graduate on December 12 and anticipates continuing training as a Marine Corps Mechanic.
Carson Culbreath completed Marine Boot Camp and Basic Training with Mike Company in San Diego on October 1. He graduated as a Private First Class and is awaiting his next training assignment, anticipated to be elsewhere in California.
Ben Kellen just graduated on November 4 from Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He is an airman and will attend six months of technical school before pursuing training as an F-16 jet mechanic.
Jacob Murphy is visiting Kremmling currently after graduating on November 5 from Basic Marine Training, also in San Diego. He is a Private First Class and will return to the Marines for 16 weeks of infantry training.
And Austin Schake is now in Kodiak, Alaska, aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley after graduating from eight weeks of Coast Guard Boot Camp in Cape May, New Jersey on October 1.
Their experiences and their directions are varied, but for those who have made it out the other end, the message is unanimous:
“It is definitely the best decision I’ve made in my life,” summarizes Murphy, who says he had always wanted to follow in the military footsteps of his father, a career Army man. “I have grown more confident in myself and how I do things. I’ve learned a lot more discipline, which I was missing.
I mean, you can’t slack off at all in the military. But it’s a great way to go. It teaches you a lot. It is one of my most proud and most humbling things I’ve done.”
And Culbreath agrees. “It is definitely a commitment, and you can’t just change your mind two months in. But if you are interested in pursuing F-F- the military, I would say it’s a great opportunity.
It offers lots of options for jobs and careers and then has later benefits like the GI Bill for education, home loans, etc. In my mind and in terms of starting life, it can give you a kick-start.
“If you give the military what they want, you’ll get what you want from the military.”
Culbreath also notes that once you get over the intentional chaos and induced stress of the first couple days of boot camp and make it to basic training where the yelling decreases, it is actually very enjoyable.
He especially enjoyed the two weeks of Military Combat Training. During Range Week, he tells of shooting drills and being able to use “night vision goggles and other technology you’ve only ever seen in movies or video games.” And in the following Field-Based Week, he says they did the equivalent of a military hide-and-seek drill in which they built defenses and tracked other platoons.
Murphy emphasizes the brotherhood that he has already found in the Marines and says that that is what he is most looking forward to as he moves forward in this phase ofhis career. Also “the Marine Corps uniforms look the best.”
But the journey they are on is not theirs alone. The path is also followed by their families, all of whom express pride, excitement, and worry for their sons.
Schake’s mom, Kelley Rice, notes that after being able to see him in person at his graduation, “I was grateful he still had his easy-going spirit, sense of humor and amazing smile, but he had also grown into an incredibly responsible young man who was capable of tackling the world without his mother’s nagging!!”
“I could not be more proud of the decision that Jacob has made to serve his County in this way,” enthuses Murphy’s mother, Ruth Nixon. “He truly is my hero. I am so very proud and honored to be his Mom and to have had the opportunity to raise such an outstanding young man! Jacob is a true definition of honor, pride, respect, and selflessness.”
Castanon’s mother, Jackie Maestra, tells how she “cried like a baby” when he first told her he wanted to enlist. But since, she says, “It has been exciting to see him go from basketball/football and track uniforms to a US Marine Uniform. Now, every time I think of him, I smile because I’m so proud of him.”
“We are so proud of [Carson’s] commitment and service to this country,” notes Culbreath’s mother, Carol, “–following in the footsteps of his grandfathers. Oorah!”
And Kellen’s mother, Brenda, declared seeing her son graduate from basic training as “a super proud mom moment!”
These are the names and stories of Grand County’s future veterans–enthusiastic, generous young people who are giving their time and efforts to the security of our nation. Perhaps in a number of years or perhaps a number of decades, they will leave the service and come back home where the fraternal nature and structure of the military will not follow them.
On average, the length of military enlistment across all branches is just under 15 years. That would make these young men younger than 35 when they return home, a transition that is not always easy for veterans to make.
At that time Veterans Services will be available to them, but younger vets are less likely to engage in these opportunities, according to a 2017 article in US Veterans Magazine. Perhaps in their minds, as in those of so much of the public, “veterans” are “old” men or occasionally “old” women.
Let us hope that Veterans Services and the communities in which they operate continue to find new ways to engage young veterans, meeting them where they’re at and creating new means of support.
Support is what we all need during and sometimes following any major transition. If you know of a veteran in Grand County
(young or “not”) who could benefit from Veterans Services support, put them in touch with GC Veterans Services Officer Duane Daily at the County Admin building in Hot Sulphur or at (970) 725-3122.