Preserve and Protect: Forestry Gives Vets a Chance to Serve on Native Soil
It’s morning in Colorado’s backcountry and time for PT (that's soldier-speak for physical training). Under a blue sky and alongside the yawning sway of ponderosa pines, half a dozen vets move with a shared rhythm. Their mission: help prevent forest fires.
They are part of the nonprofit Southwest Conservation Corps’ Veterans Green Corps (VGC), an effort to fight 21 percent unemployment among veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, through environmental career transition. VGC provides opportunities that consistently make the difference for this unique group: crews of other returned soldiers sorting through similar experiences; job skills that are in demand in the conservation sector; the gritty, hard work they crave; and a chance to continue service to their country.
Military experience sometimes translates poorly onto civilian resumes. Sarah Castinada, a former Army medic, used to jump out of planes into drop zones with the 82nd Airborne. Specialist Tony Lagouranis served as an Army interrogator in Iraq. Lew Sovocool, an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, possesses technical skills attractive to employers, but will likely never replicate the level of responsibility he had as a program manager of a $200 million Afghan Army infrastructure program.
Many vets are still dealing with the psychological effects of war—19 percent of all troops returning from Iraq and 11.3 percent coming home from Afghanistan suffer mental health problems—and some VGC corpsmembers claim the time spent outdoors among fellow veterans has helped alleviate anxiety and post traumatic stress. For most though, VGC simply speaks to the sense of valor, unity, and service that first attracted them to the military.
Amy Foss, Southwest Conservation Corps’ Director of Operations, recounts the words she hears repeatedly from these vets, “I’m not broken. I don’t need help. I need job skills.”
The work isn’t easy. For some, cutting firebreaks and sawyering ladder fuels (combustible vegetation like dead trees) is the hardest test of their endurance since basic training. VGC corpsmembers attend chainsaw training, fire behavior, and wildland firefighting courses through local forest partners to earn their “Red Cards.” With this qualification and experience, they can build toward adrenaline-rich positions on hotshot and smokejumper crews suppressing wildfires from land and air. Coupling their certifications from VGC with a veterans’ preference for employment at federal agencies, a future in wildland fire mitigation holds real promise.
The program, in collaboration with Veterans Green Jobs, has received over $1M in federal support through the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Highly replicable, it has already expanded to conservation corps in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. Working with VGC, veterans protect local residents from the threat of catastrophic fire and defend the canopy to save old-growth ponderosa pines. At the same time, they are finding green pathways to what they desire most: continued, meaningful service. “We wanted to do more than just assimilate,” explains U.S. Navy veteran Derrick Charpentier, “We wanted to bring back that warrior spirit we had from the military, and show people that we can all really make a positive difference in this world.”
All photos courtesy Southwest Conservation Corps