Zig zag trail leads veterans to Glenwood Springs
Three-time US Army combat veteran Sgt. Jacob Weigel wanted a simple life. Inconsistent luck and capricious timing would dictate otherwise.
“I believe God has a plan for all of us,” said Weigel. “And although my path has changed in a zig and zag style, I believe that I’m exactly where I should be.”
Over the years, Weigel pursued his childhood dream of studying geology through the war-torn Middle East and into the Rocky Mountains.
As a geologist, he has found a home in Glenwood Springs with the US Forest Service.
“I don’t see myself looking anywhere else in the near future,” says Weigel, plant engineer at the forest administration. “I love it here.”
The 41-year-old Weigel, a self-proclaimed “Mama’s Boy” in his childhood, did not have the bravery typical of a young army recruit.
Instead, he signed up in 2001 – just months before the 9/11 attacks – about a friend who had recently attended a boot camp.
During his friend’s graduation ceremony, Weigel watched as troops were celebrated and commanders paid homage to their efforts – a presentation was played for the benefit of those in attendance highlighting the graduated soldier’s best moments and the crowning glory of his accomplishments. It was pure propaganda, and Weigel took the bait.
“Bootcamp was nothing like the presentation,” Weigel said with a chuckle.
Despite the nifty ceremony, Weigel was not interested in devoting any part of his life to the military and instead chose to join the US Army Reserve.
“One weekend a month, two weeks in summer,” he recalls. “They told me that, and that’s what I signed up for. It didn’t work out as I expected. “
Safe in the reserves?
On September 11, 2001, Weigel was graduating from Fort Lee, Virginia, when his instructors told the unit to huddle in formation outside their barracks – about 130 miles south of the Pentagon.
“We didn’t know anything,” said Weigel. “We couldn’t even go to the barracks to see what was happening on TV because they were worried about an attack on Fort Lee.”
When Weigel’s unit finally learned of the attacks, he said the thought of deploying had never crossed his mind as the military rarely calls the reserves for combat overseas.
Born in Pasadena, Texas, Weigel grew up in Albany, New York. As a middle child of five, his father worked as a hydrologist for the US Geological Survey and his mother was an administrative assistant. He said he wanted to work as a civil servant but had no real interest in going to war.
When Weigel registered in January 2001, he did so with a view to the future. Instead of fighting gun jobs, Weigel considered training as an electrician or plumber before getting involved in the oil supply.
“I wanted to do basic training because it looked challenging and fun,” he said. “But the army’s ability to help with college money was also a big draw. Since I was in fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a geologist, and the oil supply seemed to have something to do with it. “
After the attacks of September 11th and the completion of the Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee, Weigel tried to return to his regularly planned, mostly civilian life.
Less than a year later, however, the unexpected happened.
In 2002, the Army mobilized Weigel’s Reserve Unit, Army Reserve 1018th Supply and Service Company, and sent it to Iraq.
Now and then a soldier’s life
Operation Iraqi Freedom was still in its infancy, and Weigel spent his first tour laying oil pipelines from Kuwait to Iraq behind the Allied invading forces.
He spent a year in the desert, his studies pending. But duty required, and he said he enjoyed the regulated life of a soldier.
“The army really toughened me up,” said Weigel. “I was a mom’s son and I was sensitive, very sensitive. But there was no room for that in the army. “
Shortly after returning to the United States in 2003, Weigel was inducted into the Colorado School of Mines and began teaching in 2004.
“I was a C-student – I had no business at any of the best engineering schools in the country, but I was happy to be there,” he said.
He kept a high grade point average, but it wasn’t long before his country called again.
From 2005 to 2006 Weigel completed his second tour in Iraq with the 264th Army Reserve Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
About four cannon trucks escorted his fuel convoys of up to 20 fuel supply trucks, each carrying approximately 7,000 gallons of fuel, across Iraq.
Although the convoys were seldom plagued by the improvised explosive devices, which in the later years of the war became almost synonymous with vehicle travel across Iraq, Weigel said they were far from safe.
“Three rocket-propelled grenades hit the tank that I was towing while driving and tipped the truck onto the driver’s wheels,” Weigel said calmly with a slight smile on his face. “I got out and looked around, but saw nothing, we moved on.”
When the convoy reached its destination, soldiers gathered around Weigel’s truck with their mouths open.
“Of course my truck had three holes,” he said, laughing, “And like any good soldier, I climbed up, opened it, and looked in to see three RPGs floating in the fuel.”
He has some theories as to why the explosives didn’t explode – they were fired from too close range, the exterior of the fuel tank was too thin to activate their detonation devices, or, as was often the case with insurgent weapons, were duds – but he said he never knew why he was spared a fiery fate that day.
When he returned home after another year across the “big pond”, Weigel tried to get used to his studies again, but had difficulty keeping his grades.
“I had to relearn calculus I while studying calculus II, and I just found it hard to get back into it,” he said. “Every time I was deployed, my GPA took a hit and I had to dig out a hole.”
He reached out to a teacher to drop out of a class he found particularly difficult with the intention of resuming it at a later date, but the teacher encouraged him to stay. He did, but it wasn’t long before Uncle Sam needed him to go to the “sandpit” again.
This time, however, his Denver-based unit was reclassified as a Combat Support Battalion and no longer required multiple petroleum specialists. Weigel continued to suspend his studies and had to familiarize himself with a new military profession, and choices were limited.
“I chose the morgue because the position was a promotion and I wanted to overcome my lifelong fear of corpses,” he said.
Weigel had been afraid of the dead for as long as he could remember. During training, he learned that his fear was not of the deceased, but of the psychological effects of the funeral services, which made the dead look like they were sleeping peacefully.
“I came to the realization that the soul left the body after death and that what was left was just an inanimate object, like a handkerchief box or a pen,” said Weigel. “That’s how I had to think to do the job.”
Weigel’s educational efforts were once again put on hold when he spent a year from 2008 to 2009 tending to the bodies of dead Americans and Iraqis in Balad, Iraq, the country’s second largest mortuary collection.
“We could go for a week without seeing a single body, then we might get hit at 2-3 a day,” he said. “In a mass accident, we processed corpses for 48 hours straight.”
Now in a command position, Weigel said he had led his soldiers by example, washed the corpses next to them, checked for identification marks and loaded them into refrigerated transport crates.
Upon returning from his third and final tour, Weigel said his ability to express emotions – other than anger – had warped.
Once, when Weigel listened to a civilian talk about the tragedy of her son’s recent death, he said he felt nothing and realized that something was wrong. It’s a challenge he continues to struggle with – a by-product of the war that separates him from the civilians he works with.
Right place, wrong time
Back on track at the Colorado School of Mines, Weigel earned a bachelor’s degree in geology in 2010 and a master’s degree in geology specializing in oil exploration in 2014 – just in time for a historic collapse in oil prices.
Weigel said that despite the planned work, the price of oil per barrel had dropped so much that the Texas-based company began laying off workers before its launch date.
After a brief spike in oil prices, a small oil company in Basalt hired Weigel as a geologist in August 2015. In January 2016 prices fell again and Weigel looked again for another job.
After four years of odd jobs for the Roaring Fork Valley Co-op and various other employers, Weigel took a break.
Through a mutual acquaintance with the Veterans Administration, Weigel was introduced to Greg Rosenmerkel, a retired US Air Force engineer and US Forest Service engineering staff officer for the White River National Forest.
Rosenmerkel also acts as the local manager of the Forest Service’s Veterans Special Emphasis Program, and after seeing Weigel’s qualifications, Rosenmerkel used the Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA) program to recruit Weigel.
“The forest service has an ongoing mission that veterans make up 25% of all new applicants,” said Rosenmerkel. “Weigel was able to apply to the VRA without an advertisement, but still had to meet all the requirements for the position.”
It was February 2020 and the world was about to turn upside down. Weigel waited out the pandemic with the rest of the world, but when others questioned their future, his goal was to finally use his engineering degree.
In July 2020, Weigel’s application was approved and he was hired as the White River National Forest’s newest plant engineer.
“It’s been a long way to get here and it’s not exactly geology,” he said. “But in forestry everything is closely related to geology, so it’s never far from my desk and I don’t plan to look back.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at [email protected]