Sunlight filters through a whispering pine canopy north of Mancos, illuminating the bright green and rust colored leaves of oak brush in their autumn splendor.
Figures wearing yellow helmets, sunglasses and heavy-duty uniforms of green and brown and blue emerge from an SUV, slinging oil-smelling chainsaws over their shoulders and joking about who should cut first as they march up a hillside carpeted with pine needles.
The serene mountain Chicken Creek setting is about to erupt with noise and commotion.
Celebrating his 26th birthday, Barry Horn cranks up his chainsaw and it roars to life. He carves into the trunk of a pine tree, then shouts a warning Falling! as the mammoth pine comes crashing down.
The remaining workers descend on the fallen tree, careful to make eye contact with Horn as they yank away severed branches with gloved hands as Horns chainsaw cuts them away.
Like the other crew members, Horn is an military veteran, having served aboard the USS Kearsarge with the U.S. Navy.
The aim of the chainsaw work is to thin the forest for fire mitigation and forest health.
For veterans returning from combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, or launching fighter jets from the deck of the USS Nimitz working in a civilian job in restaurants, coffee shops, retail stores, construction or other areas may not have a strong appeal. Some will have difficulty finding any job at all.
Gabe Lucero said he spent three and a half years looking for work after returning from the service.
On this day, the seven veterans are looking at a possible future career.
The Veterans Green Corps was established in 2009 to provide training and experience for returning armed forces veterans to jump-start them on a possible career in wildland firefighting.
They are excited about the possibility.
Id recommend this to every veteran out there, Lucero said.
Kevin Heiner, program director with the Southwest Conservation Corps, said the veterans program also eases the cultural transition back into civilian life by allowing them to work with each other.
These guys have someone to talk to who understands them, he said. Whereas a lot of veterans coming back dont have that opportunity. They lose that peer support group once theyre separated. And they really have no other place to turn to.
Operated as a joint project of the SCC and Veterans Green Jobs, the operation was started using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Funds.
Since then, the program model has received national attention spreading to states across the West and being featured in the New York Times.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management recognized the value of the program and now provide the primary source of funding, Heiner said.
Todd Gardiner, a Natural Resource Specialist with the Dolores Public Lands office, said the local veterans crew has thinned 104 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near the interface with private property at the Chicken Creek site.
I cant say enough good things about the vets, Gardiner said. Theyre hard working, mature and safe. Just over the last two years, theyve done some amazing work out here.
The forest floor at the site is dotted with domed piles of pine limbs, which will be burned when the snow falls. The trunks of the fallen trees will be skidded out and sold as firewood to locals at $10 a cord. Eventually, a prescribed burn will be performed at the site to thin undergrowth.
Gardiner estimates the workers have cut 6,760 trees in the area. He said he hopes to hire several of them as firefighters.
Besides fire mitigation, the crew of veterans also does fire line work and removal of invasive plant species, Heiner said.
The SCC has traditionally worked with youth crews to do conservation work. Which was initially what the veterans crews were tasked with. Over the years, the Veterans Green Corps developed more into a career-oriented training program.
What were seeing is that veterans want professional development, Heiner said. Whereas youth and young adults that we work with just want an experience that we create to grow together as a team. The veterans wanted tangibles. So we beefed up our training. Were able to secure a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM, bringing in more dollars, so that we could offer better trainings and through that offer better service to the agencies.
Veterans Green Jobs provides potential candidates for the program.
The crew members present Wednesday ranged in age from 24 to 35 coming from as near as Pagosa Springs and as far as Oregon. Horn came from the big city of Los Angeles. This was the first time hed ever seen tall pines or mountain wildlife. He said he enjoys the fresh air offered by the program.
Looking ahead, hes focused on one thing.
Its a chance for me to become a firefighter, Horn said. Thats my dream.
Trevor Peterson, a crew leader and Pagosa Springs native, served in Iraq with the Army 101st Airborne unit during 2003 and 2004. He said the program offers a work structure similar to the military as opposed to civilian jobs.
I did retail and that was kind of rough, he said. Doing customer service is hard when youre coming out of the military.
Most of the crew live in Durango and commute to the job site for four 10 hour shifts a week. They are paid a stipend of $400 a week and can earn certifications in chainsaw work and wildland fire behavior through a multi-tiered training program.
Were also able to offer participants the Americorps Participation Award for their service, Heiner said. It kind of enhances their GI bill and kind of gives them some money to go to school if theyre so inclined.
Last year, eight graduates of the program were hired as firefighters, Heiner said, one of which was hired into a Hotshot crew.
More information on the program is available at: veteransgreenjobs.org/veteransgreencorps
Reach Reid Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org