The U.S. Forest Service and the Veterans Fire Corps program are helping military veterans transition from military duty to civilian life.
Veterans coming home from foreign wars sometimes struggle with abrupt culture shock of life outside the military.
Steven Cooper, now a program coordinator with the Veterans Fire Corps, manages veterans doing logging work in the Haycamp area of the San Juan National Forest.
Before Cooper, 30, joined the Fire Corps, he’d gone into a tailspin after his four years in the Air Force.
“I was slipping, not doing well in school, abusing alcohol, basically not adjusting,” he said. “Then I Googled vet jobs, and the first one up was this program.”
The Fire Corps puts veterans to work thinning projects and fire-wood collection on public lands. It gives them training in forestry, chain-saw use, and fire mitigation.
“They do productive and necessary work that we could not do otherwise,” said Mark Krabath, a forester with the Dolores Public Lands office overseeing the project.
But for war-torn veterans, or reservists who have been in a military setting for years, the program is also a transition job.
“It changed my life and helped me to get back on track,” Cooper said. “Now I’m a supervisor for other veterans that had the same issues I had, and I’m in my final semester at Fort Lewis College.”
The regimented structure of the program, physical outdoor work, and camaraderie of working with other vets helps make the Fire Corps program effective.
“It is therapeutic for veterans, many who are disabled and have witnessed horrific things in war,” Cooper says. “When we get out of the military, what’s missing is other vets to talk to. Civilians don’t understand what we’ve been through, and it can lead to more suffering in the form of isolation, depression and alcohol abuse.”
In the forest, the crew of veterans spike camp and live together for eight days at a time. For six months they work from sunup to sundown clearing overgrown forests, piling up slash, and positioning felled timber so the public can access it for firewood.
“They take someone with zero experience, and get them qualified for jobs in forestry and wildland firefighting,” said veteran Dan Salerno, 28, while taking a break from falling trees Wednesday in Haycamp.
“For veterans, the camaraderie of the group is important. That is why I recommend this program for them,” adds veteran Ryan Huber, 27. “Out here we have the same lingo, similar experiences, and know how to work hard in the sun as a team doing a lot of heavy lifting.”
Military service men tend to be adrenaline junkies, leading many to use the Fire Corps to jumpstart a career in wildland firefighting. Both Huber and Salerno plan for careers in smoke-jumping and helitack.
“We have become experts in some of the tools in firefighting, and have strong leadership skills from our military service,” Salerno said. “We have a strong appreciation for jobs that are difficult.”
The veterans appreciate returning home and continuing to serve their country through conservation work in the National Forest, Cooper said.
“We served overseas, now we can serve citizens here at home,” he said. “What better way to serve your country than conservation work for the national forest.”
Cooper sees a past version of himself in some of his charges.
“They saw their buddies die in combat like me, and when they return they live a reckless life like I did,” Cooper said. “Here, they see that I pulled myself out of the hole, and it gives them hope. One guy we have is recovering from horrible war experiences and now plans to go to school to be a helicopter pilot through the GI Bill.”
Cooper has been lobbying in Washington for additional funding for the program by giving presentations of his experience. He helped to secure $200,000 to continue the program by making connections with higher-ups.
“With the wars ending and the military downsizing, there will be an influx of veterans needing jobs, and the Fire Corps fits the mold for that transition,” Cooper said. “Having this on their resume helps them to get hired on in forestry, recreation, firefighting and range management.”