A lifetime of service: Al Zepeda’s journey from the Navy to police officer
Officer Al Zepeda served in the United States Navy for 24 years before joining the Avon Police Department and leading the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Minturn. This Veteran’s Day, we celebrate his decades of service to our country and our community.
Finding a path forward
Today, Zepeda is a decorated Navy veteran and highly respected police officer and community member, but growing up he struggled to find his path in life. Raised in a lower income neighborhood in Southern California, right outside of Los Angeles, the options for advancement were limited, and Zepeda saw many of his family members join gangs. As an adolescent, he felt himself being drawn into the pervasive environment of violence that surrounded him.
“Being raised in Southern California, you had a path,” Zepeda said. “You could either go into the colleges, or get stuck in the streets and be raised in an environment that is street-driven. I was going down that street-driven path.”
Zepeda had a natural aptitude for computers in high school, but he knew that his family did not have the means to send him to college. He tried to pursue his interests through classes and various short-term jobs, but ultimately, he felt stuck.
“It wasn’t me,” Zepeda said. “I was trying to be accepted in how I was raised and where I was raised. We didn’t have those kinds of opportunities, that ‘you’re going to succeed and become a doctor-type thing. We had to make our own path, and I started to notice that I was getting into trouble.”
After graduating high school, Zepeda lived at home and worked in the area, knowing that if he didn’t take a step in a new direction, the minor incidents he was involved in would only increase in severity with time. That’s why, at age 22, Zepeda made the decision that would change the trajectory of his life: he joined the Navy.
“I realized that I could join the military, get some college education through the military, and then be able to become successful in my own way,” Zepeda said.
Zepeda flew across the country to Virginia, where he would be stationed for the rest of his military career, and for the first time in his life found himself on a clear path forward.
“It was scary, I’m not gonna lie,” Zepeda said. “I’d never been away from home, and being on my own took some adjusting, but when I got there I knew this was the way to go. I just focused on trying to advance and trying to get better.”
His proclivity for computing made him an ideal fit for the Navy, and he quickly began thriving in his new environment, moving from aviation administration to flight deck coordination, and ultimately working his way up to Chief Petty Officer, one of the highest ranks in the U.S. Navy. Over the course of his 24-year career, Zepeda was deployed for six to nine months at a time on ships all over the world, traveling to over 20 countries and accumulating a decade’s worth of time on the water.
“I’ve enjoyed every single time that I’ve been out at sea,” Zepeda said. “A lot of people know it’s a very hard life, and being on the water without seeing land for three months is tough, but I truly enjoyed it. To see different cultures made me a better person, because I can understand and appreciate everything that we have here.”
Three years into his service, Zepeda married his middle-school sweetheart, Kathleen, and was able to support his family in a way that he had only dreamed of growing up.
“You need that home force behind you, because when we go on deployment for six months, nine months, you want to come back to your family, and she was there,” Zepeda said. “I was able to provide a healthy home for her and my son, and ever since then that has always been the goal — to ensure my family comes first, and to give them more than I had growing up.”
After 24 years in the Navy, Zepeda was ready to retire from military life, but he knew it was only the beginning of his next form of service.
In the early 1990s he was deployed in Sierra Leone, evacuating people after a military coup sent the country into mass chaos and instability. While helping a traumatized American man get onto the ship home, Zepeda realized that while he was originally drawn to the military for opportunities of personal advancement, his true calling was to provide help to people when they are going through a crisis.
“He looked at me, and he said, ‘Seeing this American flag, seeing you in uniform, I know I’m going to be alright’, and you just get this tingling through your whole body,” Zepeda said. “I knew I was doing something for a reason. That experience moved me towards the security side, and then it became my ultimate goal to be a police officer, because I really enjoy helping people.”
Zepeda retired from the Navy in 2013, and immediately followed a friend out to Eagle County, where he joined the Avon police force. He now works as a crisis negotiator, and applies the skills that he learned in the military to address the needs of our local community.
“The crises that we deal with in our world [in the valley] may not be similar to the ones that we deal with in the military, but what people perceive to be a crisis for them — whether it be the military or civilian population — it’s still a crisis,” Zepeda said. “So as a leader, we have to adjust ourselves to help them understand that it’s just a passing thing that we can focus on and improve.”
Around two thirds of the Avon police force are ex-military members, with representation from the Navy, Army and Marines among its ranks.
“That discipline and that respect for others makes us better officers,” Zepeda said. “People make mistakes, but we’re not here to hold their feet to the fire. That’s what we learned through the military: you make mistakes, but you can overcome them and you can become successful, and it’s the same principle here.”
In addition to his work on the force, Zepeda also serves as post commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8790 in Minturn. Over 250 veterans are members of the post, and Zepeda helps to coordinate funding and and services to meet the needs of Eagle County veterans while promoting education on military contributions and patriotism in the valley.
“It just reemphasizes what our purpose as veterans is,” Zepeda said. “I came to realize that helping people is not just in law enforcement, it’s also in the community itself. Here, us veterans are highly engaged in the community, and we like to take care of each other in one way or another.”
From international seas to our local valley, Zepeda’s mission has not changed, and he strives to be of service to the people around him in any way he can.
“We work together to achieve the common goal of being better and improving our situations,” Zepeda said. “It really makes me feel good and I enjoy doing it, so that’s why I continue doing what I did.”
Celebrating Veteran’s Day
In celebration of Veteran’s Day this week, Zepeda and a number of fellow veterans from the Eagle County community are visiting classrooms to talk about their service and their experiences in the military. At Eagle Middle School this past Tuesday, Zepeda spoke with a classroom of sixth graders about the ships he worked on, the countries he visited, the medals he earned, and most importantly, the power that each of them has to become a leader in their own community.
“Your teachers are helping you excel and grow to become leaders of our country, and that’s why we’re here,” Zepeda said to the students. “I’m not telling you to become part of the military, that’s not what I’m here to do. One day, we want you to be leaders just like we are. That’s why we are talking to everyone here, to say that you can achieve your goals by working hard and working together.”
On this Veteran’s Day, like each of those before it, Zepeda is celebrating the sacrifice and efforts that the military, both active and retired, have given to the preservation of the United States, while remembering those that we have lost along the way.
“It’s a difficult thing, because we’ve all lost a lot of friends,” Zepeda said. “There are so many that forget what they are doing for us. For us to be able to enjoy our family time and our meals and all that great stuff, that is because of our military members, and on Veteran’s Day we want them to understand that we appreciate everything they do and won’t ever forget what they are doing for us on a daily basis.”