Veterans Day in the Vail Valley |

Veterans Day in the Vail Valley

Geraldine Haldner
Retired Air Force Colonel Tom Kirk speaks to students at Berry Creek Middle School about Veterans Day Friday, November 8. Kirk served 28 years in the Air Force, 5 of which were in the Hanoi Hilton as a POW.

Often confused with Memorial Day, which honors those who have died abroad in armed conflicts, Veterans Day, or Armistice Day, is designated as the day America honors those who fought and survived.

Several local veterans have been visiting area schools to tell students about their experiences in Korea’s “forgotten” war or Vietnam, the war that changed America’s perspective on warfare, or even of the blood-curdling moments that came with D-Day, the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

“We have more and more schools interested in a veteran visiting their classes,” says John Perkins, a “grunt” veteran of Vietnam and the “acting commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Minturn.”

Filling these speaking engagements, he says, is becoming harder to do.

“Unfortunately, we’ve lost four of our guys this year, and now we are just sort of limping along,” he said of his post, which counts about 88 members.

Because of the shortage in manpower and some organizational troubles, Perkins says people looking to buy a charitable “buddy poppy” will be looking in vain this Veterans Day.

“We normally sell those buddy poppies to support our post, but this year we won’t get it done,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be back next year.”

World War II veterans, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, are now dying at the rate of nearly 1,000 a day in America, and unfortunately, unless told, their memories and lessons go to the grave with them.

Funerals for veterans of the Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953, are also occurring more often. The Veterans Affairs estimates that 2008 will be the peak year for national cemeteries – in other words, most World War II and Korean War vets will be gone after that.

Several highly-decorated war heroes who live in the Vail Valley are attempting to keep the memories alive and keep the lessons from going unlearned.

Among them is Thomas Kirk, who spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp and returned a decorated war hero in 1973 after also having served in Korea as a fighter pilot.

Kirk, who plays the saxophone and has been teaching skiing ever since he settled in Vail with his wife, Ann, in 1992, talked to students at three schools last week.

“More than anything else, I’m a survivor,” he says, dismissing the war hero description.

I was just a guy in two wars. I decided I was going to make it out alive, and I did.”

In an oddball sort of way, Kirk considers his Vietnam experience one of the best of his life – despite torture sessions that lasted for days and the isolation that lasted for more than five years.

“I learned three things,” he says. “First, I really do value my freedom. I live in Vail. Who could have a bad day here?”

Second, he also says his faith in the United States is stronger than ever.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that we would be taken care of and brought home,” Kirk says. “With the help of God, our country and our fellow man, I could say to myself every day, “I’m going to get through this.'”

And most of all, he says, he has learned to deal with adversity.

Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at

Local Veteran’s Day Celebration:

What: Veterans’ Day assembly

Where: Red Sandstone Elementary School in Vail

When: 2 p.m.

Why: To honor local, living service men and women of the American armed forces as part of Armistice Day, dedicated to the survivors of foreign wars and conflicts. The ceremony includes a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and students will raise the flag outside the school.

Support Local Journalism