Steamboat Springs Routt County Undersheriff Ray Birch, a Marine Corps veteran who has served three tours of duty in the past decade with the Air Force Reserves, including two tours in Iraq, said Sunday night that the nation’s decade-long search for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden sometimes took a back seat for soldiers, mentally, to the daily duties of deployment in a war zone.
But the unfinished search never fully escaped the mind of any man or woman in the military, he said.
President Barack Obama announced late Sunday that U.S. troops killed bin Laden in a firefight in Pakistan. The news sent seismic impacts across the world, including Routt County.
“If you think in the macro version, the broad version, I think it’s a tremendous morale booster,” said Birch, who is still active in the reserves. “However, when you’re over there, carrying out your day-to-day missions, you’re really not all that focused on Osama bin Laden.”
But killing or capturing bin Laden, Birch said, “was always something that I think every American serving over there, it was always in the back of their mind that this needed to be completed. I would suggest that most of us are very excited, very pleased.”
Birch said he learned of bin Laden’s killing through a phone call from a friend he served with. “In one sense, you feel a sense of justification, you feel a little bit of closure, I suppose, but then on the other hand, being realistic, I think our work is still cut out for us worldwide,” Birch said. “I was pleased that they finally located him and killed him.”
Bin Laden’s death drew a boisterous crowd to the White House in Washington, D.C., and sparked celebrations across the country. Steamboat Springs Police Department Sgt. Sam Silva said local reaction was comparatively quiet.
“I’ve heard some people yelling outside the bar, and there were a couple of fireworks going off over by the high school, but I don’t know if it was related to that or not,” Silva said late Sunday.
He said “nothing large-scale” occurred as the news spread and he received no phone calls about excessive reactions in Steamboat.
Just outside the city, on his family’s ranch on Twentymile Road, veteran and American Legion member Jim Stanko was up late watching the news.
“My reaction is that this is great,” Stanko said. “It’s something that we’ve been sending young men and women over there now for quite a while to get accomplished, and maybe now that we’ve got it done it’ll speed things up and we can get these guys home now.
“I think it gives meaning to all those guys that have been over there and have come back — at least they know their time hasn’t been wasted.”
Stanko said the news created “a moment of relief” that could spark a surge of patriotism in the nation.
“It’s something that we can feel good about,” he said. “It’s something to make us all feel good and feel proud of what our men and women in the service are doing again.”
Veteran, Steamboat resident and former Congressional candidate Bob McConnell said he felt gratitude Sunday night.
“I think we owe a tremendous amount to the American military and the intelligence community that have spent so many years pursuing this objective,” he said. “It’s a mission well done.”
McConnell said that mission will have an unshakeable place in American history.
“It’s hard to celebrate a death, but death is a part of life when you live the kind of life Osama bin Laden chose for himself,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that books will be written about.”
Asked if he had a final thought, McConnell gave a simple answer: “God bless the United States of America.”
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or email mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com