Anybody who knows Denise Hess agrees she's a fighter.
The mother of three in Bayfield is known for being a relentless advocate in the search for her friend's son, Dylan Redwine. Even after part of his skeletal remains were found, she has worked to keep the case, now a murder investigation, in the public spotlight.
She attributes part of that take-charge attitude to her service in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1985 to 1988, when she was a small-arms weapons instructor at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina.
She also has turned that fighting spirit toward her own case - taking charge of her stage 4 colo-rectal cancer diagnosed in June of 2013.
On Veterans Day, she will pause to thank her dad and uncle, both U.S. Navy Veterans, and remember her grandfather, James Fuller, also a Marine veteran in the Pacific in World War II.
She still has his uniform, scrapbooks and mementos from the that time, including maps he drew on rice paper. He served in the 4th Marine Battalion in a small infantry group that raided the Japanese. Before that, he was a game warden in Durango.
Hess was born in Delta and raised in Cedaredge. She enlisted in the Marines a year after high school graduation. She rode in her first airplane en route to boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina. She then studied small arms weapons in Aberdeen, Maryland before going to Camp LeJeune. In 1985, "it was still a man's world out there," she remembered, then added, "I got my mouth in trouble a few times."
She served in the 10th Marines for three years, receiving three Meritorious Masts, Marine Corps lingo for a written commendation from her commanding officer. She received an honorable discharge from the service as a lance corporal a year after she married a fellow Marine and was pregnant with their first son, Jesse.
Then she switched to the tough role of being a Marine wife for 14 years. She said actually, the jobs are similar.
"You're married to the corps," she said. "Being a military wife is definitely a challenge." She said that includes long deployments and having to solve your own problems, but knowing you can depend on other Marine wives for support. She had three children in three different state on three Marine bases.
"I volunteered with the Key Wives program for 10 years after exiting the service," she said. Key wives program was a system of volunteers set in place to support the families mostly during deployments, but existed as well to support the Marines and families during crisis.
She helped established the Key Wives volunteer program at Parris Island Recruit Depot from 1993 to 1996.
"It was such an enormous support system for the families and Marines that the entire 2nd Battalion adopted it," she said. In 1996, she and other volunteers were honored and recognized by the base general for their efforts, and he planned to implement the program base wide.
While her service was tough, she said she is proud to have served, and being a Marine helped her later in life.
Hess said she was kind of a quiet kid when she arrived for boot camp, never having lived anywhere but Colorado.
Boot camp "really breaks you down," she said. "You are less of an individual and more of a team. But they build you back up to be part of the greatest fighting force on the planet."
"You have to think fast while people are yelling at you," she said. "I learned a lot and became a better person."
After her marriage ended, she left the East Coast and returned home to Colorado to be near her parents, who at the time lived in Bayfield.
She worked in a variety of jobs, including as an ad representative for the Pine River Times, then opened her own business, a video rental store and resale clothing boutique.
Almost two years ago, on Nov. 19, 2012, her life turned upside down.
An old friend of hers, Elaine Hatfield, called her in tears from Colorado Springs and said her son, Dylan, had gone missing from Vallecito. He had flown in to Durango the day before to visit his father, Mark Redwine.
"I never even thought about it," she said of her immediate action to help her friend look for her son. "There was no time to think about anything."
Hess and a group of parents in Bayfield - some of them friends of Hatfield's, but many were complete strangers - started searching door-to-door in Vallecito and Forest Lakes, passing out fliers and asking people if they had seen the 12-year-old boy. Thanksgiving dinner was eaten at a friend's house after a day of searching on the mountain.
"I was terrified and heartbroken," she said.
She helped organized a rally with media coverage, press conferences, kept passing out flyers, and got volunteers to make blue ribbons with Dylan's name on them.
A facebook page she started, Find Missing Dylan Redwine, grew quickly, and now has 29,785 likes. Even this autumn, she has been helping Hatfield's fiance, Michael Hall, get the word out to area hunters about Dylan's missing hat, cell phone and backpack, which were never found. Some of his bones were found in June of 2013 on Middle Mountain, near his father's house. DNA testing determined they were Dylan's. The rest of his remains have not been found.
Then six months later, another life-changing event took place. She'd had a lot of abdominal pain and went to see an alternative-healing doctor, who told her not to worry about it. But the pain worsened, and knowing something wasn't right, she found another doctor who ordered a colonoscopy. The results weren't good. She had cancerous tumors in her colon and rectum, which had killed another grandfather. She cried and was angry, then she moved into action, again. And this time, she realized she couldn't do it alone. Friends held fundraisers, opened bank accounts, cleaned her house before she started chemo, and started yet another facebook page, Katt's Warriors, in honor of her nickname. She said it was hard to accept the financial assistance at first. She's been working multiple jobs since she was a kid. But the cancer has left her too weak to work full-time. Friends have established benefit funds at Pine River Valley Bank, First National Bank of Durango, and GoFundMe.
She went through two rounds of chemotherapy and one round of radiation. Cancer that had moved to her lungs seemed to be shrinking.
Last week, she received disheartening news when she learned some of the cancer is back on her lungs.
But once again, she is trying to remain positive and keep fighting. The spots detected in the scan are small.
"I'm feeling OK," she said. "I'm tired and worn out and really disappointed in the latest news. But I will keep fighting because that's what Marines do."