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El Paso County’s ‘Veteran of the Year’ names its finalists

El Paso County is about ready to name its 2019 Veteran of the Year.

Thursday marks the third annual Veteran of the Year ceremony at the Veterans Monument in Bear Creek Park.

It’s down to four finalists, nominated by friends and coworkers, rated by the El Paso County Veteran Services staff members, and selected by a committee consisting of a Commissioner, a Veteran Services Officer, and a Community Services Director.

We sat down with each of the finalists to see why they top the list.

Charles Watkins is a decorated Vietnam veteran with a passion to serve others. Since his retirement, he’s welcomed home about 100,000 soldiers.

“I feel it’s important that somebody besides mom and dad show up to welcome these kids home that served our country,” said Watkins.

That’s not all. He and his wife spend their days feeding the homeless.

That desire to give back is echoed by another finalist, Duane France.

Retired from the Army, France now works to help bring balance to veterans’ mental lives as a therapist and nationwide mental health advocate. France also has a podcast where he talks about veterans’ mental health.

France says making sure veterans have the mental health care they need is a major concern, especially here.

“Once every ten days a veteran dies of suicide in El Paso County,” said France. He says the fact that he can relate to his clients helps tremendously.

Finalist Nanette Mueller, who served nearly three decades in the Army and the Army Reserves, helps ease veterans into their next careers as the Co-Founder and Executive Director of a program called Prep Connect 360.

Prep Connect 360 helps military personnel, veterans and their spouses decide what career they want to jump into next, and then teaches them the communication and networking skills they need to land jobs in different industries.

Mueller also coordinates a breakfast at iHop once a week for veterans looking to connect and prosper in Colorado Springs.

“[It helps] them build a sense of community so they can provide mutual support to each other,” she said.

Mueller says she’s served more than 700 students through the program over the last seven years.

She donates around 1,000 community service hours every year to service members, veterans and their families that are in need.

That helping spirit is seen in Joe Aldaz, too. The Air Force veteran of 21 years also educates military personnel, veterans, and their spouses – but for IT, HR, and project management job certification as the Program Manager of Syracuse University’s Onward to Opportunity program.

Aldaz says it can be intimidating to leave the military community and try to enter the business world.

“When you get out into the private sector, you’re unsure if you’re going to have those types of buddies or that loyalty,” said Aldaz.

He says Onward to Opportunity provides the networking opportunities to get the jobs, and has served more than 700 people in the last two years.

These veterans are said to be some of the most established in the community.

When referencing the Veteran of the Year award winners from the last two years, France says, “It’s like a veteran hall of fame.”

But, France and the rest of this year’s nominees are humble when it comes to the honor.

“There are over 87,000 veterans in the Pikes Peak region, and to be selected among one of the top four of those veterans. I mean that’s all I can say,” Mueller said.

“It’s not something I do for attention,” said Watkins.

“I don’t like the spotlight,” said Aldaz. “As a veteran, we know what teamwork and service is all about, and we just want to be able to provide our resources.”

We’ll report this year’s winner as soon as it’s announced.

KRDO Only 2019