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Veterans Service Officer Leisl Hammond performing taps at the 2023 Memorial at the Veterans’ Memorial. Photo by August Toevs.

This morning, Monday, May 29, members of veteran organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 3820, the American Legion, and the Marine Corp League gathered at Poncha Springs Veterans Memorial Park to commemorate soldiers lost in wartime conflicts throughout American history.

The service began with a brief address from VFW Commander Jerry Cunningham, followed by a prayer in the name of not only American soldiers killed or gone missing in combat, but also for any soldier lost in the “fight against tyranny.”

Veterans of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts performing a three-volley salute at the Chaffee County Veteran’s Memorial in Poncha Springs. Photo by August Toevs.

After the prayer, veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam performed a three-volley salute. Poncha Springs resident Jennifer Scanga performed the national anthem, and finally, Chaffee County’s Veteran Service Officer (VSO) Leisl Hammond rounded out the ceremony with a presentation of “Taps,” a bugle call most commonly associated with military funeral services, similar to the three-volley salute.

“We just have to remember all of those who didn’t come home,” said Hammond,  adding, “It’s great for veterans to have the camaraderie of other veterans… it’s unhealthy for veterans to isolate.” As VSO, Hammond’s primary responsibility is to assist veterans and their families with “claims, applications, and appeals to the [Department of Veterans Affairs].”

For VFW Commander Cunningham, the morning’s event was particularly successful because of its turnout. Some fifty-odd people, primarily veterans, and their family members, arrived to watch the brief ceremony take place.

Commander Cunningham said he was “gratified to see so many people come out this morning, something we haven’t had in the past.” The ceremony has become more modest as the years go by. What used to be a full parade down F Street in Salida has turned into a simple, unassuming memorial service at Poncha Springs Veterans Memorial Park and Fairview Cemetery. Fairview Cemetery provides the final resting place for more than 1,200 veterans, according to Navy Chaplain Len Baldin.

Chaplain Baldin explained that, in the past decade or so, membership in both the American Legion and VFW has waned to a fairly significant degree, the former’s membership currently sitting at just 47.

Commander Cunningham echoed Baldin’s words, saying  “Younger groups (veterans of the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance) are typically involved with family groups.” Cunningham himself didn’t even join the VFW until the 1990s, decades removed from his military service. He said the true value in organizations like the American Legion or VFW comes from the fact “[we] look at each other as brothers, even though we’re a part of different services.”

As a result of this dearth of membership and support, both the American Legion and VFW are actively recruiting members, said VSO Hammond. For any veterans interested in either joining a veteran group or claiming benefits from the VA, Hammond requests that phone calls be directed to her at 719-239-4678.