By Marcia Neville | University Communications
AURORA, Colo. – Korean War veteran Gene Garretson (at left above) rushed back to the lounge area at the Colorado State Veterans Home at Fitzsimons just as fast as his wheelchair would take him. He was clutching a large ceramic eagle, had a big grin on his face and a spark in his eyes. But, when he arrived, all the holiday wrapping paper had been cleared away and everyone was gone, including the young student veterans from the CU Denver Veteran Student Organization. They were the reason he’d been in such a hurry.
Garretson and several dozen residents of the patriot wing at the veterans' home had met the CU Denver student veterans and a group of ROTC students earlier that day during the third annual “Adopt-a-Veteran” holiday visit and gift exchange.
“I can’t believe I missed them,” Garretson said. “This eagle is a great present and I wanted to say thank you in person.” A staff member explained that Garretson not only collects eagles, he’s also an accomplished artist who painted a mural featuring the regal bird on the wall of his room.
Personal gifts like the eagle will help keep the memories of the CU Denver holiday visit alive long into the new year for both the resident veterans and the student veterans.
In advance of the big day, the student veterans collected “wishes” from about two dozen residents. Then using their own time and money, they shopped for the perfect gift to ensure that every wish came true. The pile of presents included Garretson’s eagle, jazz cds, clothing items and even a stuffed animal version of CU Denver’s new mascot, Milo the Lynx.
While most of the residents are military veterans, spouses of military veterans also live at the Colorado State Veterans Home. 87-year-old Edna Motley observed that the slacks she’d received should “fit nicely.” Beside her was her 84-year-old friend Bettie Nelson who felt invigorated by the students.
“They have a whole lot of energy and that’s good,” Nelson smiled. “We need that energy around here because most of us have used all of ours up and don’t have any left!”
(Photo: CU Denver student veteran Daryl Allen visits with Bettie Nelson)
The gift is time together
This was the first “Adopt-a-Vet” visit for CU Denver’s Veteran Student Organization President Michael Stack. “The gifts are nice,” he said, “but they’re not everything. The most enjoyable part is sitting down with the residents and getting to spend some time with them and hear their stories. Even if we’d come empty-handed we would have been welcome.”
As they talked and visited, the students were quickly reminded how much they had in common with the older veterans. And, it seemed as though Iraq war veteran Daryl Allen had a connection with everyone he met.
"I just wanted to do my part and make sure no one got left out," Allen said. "I'm always amazed by the stories of former military members. When I talk to an older vet and he tells me what his platoon did, I can put myself in that experience in a way that isn't possible for those who didn't serve. It's more personal to me.
"I hope the residents are able to sit a little taller because there's a young person who finds value and inerest in what they have to say."
When Allen talked to World War II veteran Paul Mares he found out that they’d both served in the Army. He also learned that Mares is a CU Denver graduate, which is why Mares’ gifts included the miniature Milo the Lynx (see photo)
Allen also felt an instant bond with Gene Garretson, the resident who received the ceramic eagle. Allen was a paratrooper. Garretson a Green Beret— who was quick to tell his own story about a record-setting jump he’d been part of when 38 soldiers parachuted from a plane in just 32 seconds. He also recalled a jump into a rice paddy that left him badly injured and led to a leg amputation three years ago.
Ever since the amputation, Garretson uses a wheelchair to get around. And, it had never moved faster than that afternoon as he rushed back to the lounge attempting to thank the CU Denver student veterans. “Please let them know that I came back to find them and that I plan to keep this eagle in my room.”