Gary Weston of the Douglas County Veteran Services Office in Douglas County. The office headquarters is in Castle Rock. Credit: Thelma Grimes

Overview: Gary Weston joins veteran services team in Douglas County

As Weston begins working with Douglas County to help local veterans, it’s his own experiences, his own depression and his own bouts with PTSD that he brings to a table built on understanding, kindness and care.

“She asked if I served in the war. She asked if she could give me a hug. She hugged me and said, ‘thank you.’ I waited 54 years to hear those words.”

Gary Weston

A Vietnam veteran does not wear a hat or T-shirt to gain recognition from strangers, but instead to connect with former soldiers who lived through one of the nation’s most controversial wars.

With tears in his eyes, Gary Weston, the new veterans’ services officer for Douglas County, said those who served during Vietnam understand. It’s those former soldiers who know what happened in the jungles of Vietnam and it’s them who support each other.

As Weston begins working with Douglas County to help local veterans, it’s his own experiences, his own depression and his own bouts with PTSD that he brings to a table built on understanding, kindness and care.

Weston, who served with both the Navy and Marine Corps, talked about how he was a clinician in Vietnam. He was assigned to a unit where he was responsible for keeping troops healthy and moving through battlefields.  

Gary Weston of the Douglas County Veterans services office

With the words “Vietnam Veteran” on his collared shirt, Weston leans back in his chair and vividly recalls the days of walking through a jungle where rain was constant, and troops struggled with their feet and getting cuts that could quickly become infected.

As the unit clinician, Weston said he just had to keep them healthy and ready to hike 20 miles a day.

Coming home, Weston described a different scenario for Vietnam veterans, unlike what American soldiers faced in World War I and World War II. In the world wars, soldiers typically were shipped to battlegrounds in units, in groups that became friends and partners, forming lifelong friendships.

In Vietnam, Weston said troops were flown to their units where they did not stay long and likely did not form strong bonds. They were flown home in planes with 150 others who were strangers.

Once home, it wasn’t like the other U.S. wars. Instead, soldiers were not greeted.

“Greeted means something warm and fuzzy,” he said. “That’s not what we got.”

Now, decades later, Weston recalls those days with tears, emotion and pride. He became emotional as he talked about a stranger in a grocery store acknowledging his Vietnam veteran hat.

“She asked if I served in the war,” he said. “She asked if she could give me a hug. She hugged me and said, ‘thank you.’ I waited 54 years to hear those words.”

Before the pandemic in 2020, Weston said he sought help, stressing that members of the military are considered tough and over the years there was a stigma around asking for help.

Going through the pandemic and getting help, Weston said he now understands his triggers, and more clearly comprehends what he went through and how to deal with it.

Using that knowledge, Weston, who had been volunteering for Douglas County, said it’s time to give back and his new position is going to help him do that.

Weston said he meets daily with veterans, noting that he can tell who has PTSD by their actions and answers to questions.

He described an interaction with one veteran who came in for assistance and made his way to Weston’s desk.  After talking for a while, the former soldier told him that he is struggling with life and his marriage is having trouble.

Weston proudly talked about helping the veteran get with the AllHealth organization where he is seeking therapy and hopefully will move forward with getting help.

Weston said helping today’s veterans is not just about military service and war, but also pressure from today’s world. With inflation continually increasing, and society being negative in general, Weston said it all can impact a veteran’s mental health.

“I want to help one soldier a week,” Weston said. “I wish I could help them all, but I will start with one.”

Veterans continue to be a vulnerable population as suicide and homeless rates continue to rise in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 2022 National Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the unadjusted suicide rate for veterans was 23.3 per 100,000 in 2001 and 31.7 per 100,000 in 2020. For non-veteran U.S. adults, the suicide rate was 12.6 per 100,000 in 2001 and 16.1 per 100,000 in 2020.

Veterans being homeless is also tied to suicide rates. According to the VA, veterans who experience homelessness are at higher risk of committing suicide, sharing many of the risk factors, including substance abuse, mental illness, adverse childhood experiences, social isolation and unemployment.

According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Veterans make up 9% of the state’s homeless population.

Weston praised Douglas County for what it is doing in continually expanding mental health services to specifically address the needs of veterans.

Chris Maes, of the Douglas County Veterans Service Office, said when the service officer position became open, Weston was one of the best options.

“Gary’s contribution to the team over the past few weeks has been invaluable,” he said. “I appreciate all of the energy and enthusiasm he has when it comes to helping veterans and their families. We’re grateful to have such a talented individual on our team helping veterans and their families.”

Douglas County Commissioner George Teal, who advocates for veteran services, said there are just under 20,000 veterans living in Douglas County, and making sure services are available to help is a top priority.

Teal said Douglas County continues to work toward setting high standards for helping veterans, and added that the program has received state and national attention.

In choosing Weston for the position, Teal said it is important to choose men and women who have “walked the walked and lived the life of a soldier.”

“We choose folks who have lived that life and have that experience to transition from military life to general population and understand what it is like,” Teal said. “Veterans who choose to make Douglas County home are the best of us, and they are one of us. This is the place for those who have experienced the harshness of the battlefield to find a home and find peace.”

Veterans Who Need Assistance: Call Douglas County Services at 303-663-6200

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