Line of fire
Veterans-turned-firefighters train in La Plata County

Members of the Veterans Green Corps head up the road at Dalla Mountain Park for some brush clearing on Tuesday afternoon. In conjunction with the Southwest Conservation Corps, veterans are getting firefighting and fire mitigation training locally./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Shawna Bethell

Dressed in forest-green trousers and heavy work boots, a young woman leans against a boulder on a wooded hillside. The sleeve of her yellow work shirt is rolled just to the point of revealing the sharp-edged tattoo gracing her skin. Black sunglasses hide her eyes.

After sidestepping a question two or three times, she looks away toward a stand of scrub oak and says, “I guess I’m doing this because there’s not much that I’ve seen in the normal working world that can compare to where we’ve been or offer the same level of challenge.”

She pauses. “This comes close.”

Sarah Castaneda served with the 82nd Airborne as a combat medic. Now she and the four other Iraq War veterans are training through the combined efforts of the Veterans Green Corps and the Southwest Conservation Corps to do fire mitigation and fight wildland fires. The group is currently finding its legs on the flanks of Animas Mountain, where they are learning the ropes of wildfire mitigation and firefighting techniques.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” said Mike Bremer who was with the Army Infantry. “At fire camp, the training was incredible, and we’ve had great instructors. Everything has been so thorough.”

The cooperation between the Veterans Green Jobs, a national organization focusing on green career development for recently returned veterans, and the Southwest Conservation Corps, a public lands conservation organization based in Durango, began the summer of 2009. At that time, VGC launched the pilot program for fire mitigation training for veterans. The project is now in its fourth session and has expanded its firefighting training thanks to the support of San Juan Public Lands Fire Management Officer Shawna Legarza. It has also become successful enough that it is catching the attention of state and national fire officials.

“SCC’s model was established for youth,” said Field Supervisor Lew Sovocool, an Army Engineer Officer who served five years in the military. “In those circumstances, with your typical high school and college-aged kids, you have to establish group dynamics. These guys may have all been in different places, but they understand each other.”

This understanding allows the crew to coalesce into an efficient working team. It also builds a team that forms a bond of trust formulated by past experience.

“We ‘get’ each other,” said Bremer, and his words were echoed by every one of his crewmembers.

“Vets speak a common language,” said Tony Lagouranis who served as an Army interrogator. “They are given a responsibility and they do it.” He also addressed a more serious issue shared by his crewmembers. “Most combat vets have problems,” he said bluntly, “and being with other vets helps.”

Ryan Borchers, project developer for Veterans Green Corps, noted that the system is working. “Agencies (like the Forest Service) are really excited about this program,” he said. “These guys have a great work ethic, they have leadership skills, they are efficient, and they know how to work for a common goal. Now we have to meet the challenge of reaching them.”

Sarah Castaneda, a former member of the 82nd Airborne, chainsaws scrub oak in the Sailing Hawks area./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Each crewmember came to the program for his or her own reason. None of them can be lumped into a category. Lagouranis had finished writing his book,

Lew Sovocool was drawn to the program because he’d done conservation work in college. “It’s like the army in some ways,” he said. “You’re working for something bigger than yourself. There’s a purpose to it, and I like working with people who have a passion for what they do. It gives a positive attitude.”

Another crewmember, Daniel Kimbrough, was trained to fight fire during his four-year service with the navy. This past winter, he was laid off from his civilian job and heard about the project through a friend who worked for the Columbine Hand Crew, a wildland fire fighting outfit of the San Juan National Forest.

“I fell in love with the work,” said Kimbrough. “It’s physically demanding. And because this program is getting a lot of recognition, it’ll help with future job opportunities.”

Likewise, Ross Schumaker didn’t intentionally seek out the program, it just happened to be the first job he found after leaving Illinois. “I came out to Fort Collins to get to the mountains,” he said.

After working as a crewmember through the spring session, Schumaker stayed on and moved up to crew leader for the summer.

“I love the camaraderie, and I like the physical labor,” he said through a smile. “And I love the adrenaline rush.” Like Kimbrough, Schumaker is planning to make fire fighting his career.

The program is set to a natural progression. The crew comes together for classroom work, where they learn the science behind fire mitigation and fire fighting. Then they head to fire camp in Salida to get hands-on training with tools they’d use on a fire line. When the crews return, they begin doing fire mitigation, cutting out unhealthy trees or undergrowth that would readily feed a forest fire, and they slowly begin to integrate with an experienced fire fighting crew. At this point, the crew has met all requirements to earn their Red Cards, which certifies they are qualified to be wildland firefighters.

“Vets have a leg up,” explains Bremer. “We already understand the chain of command. We can jump right into the work.”

It’s this kind of experience that SCC and VGC are banking on, knowing that there is a population out there that is willing to put its knowledge and hard-earned skills on the line. The fact that they can pull them together into crews that have a bond of understanding and trust only makes them more successful.

“It’s working with the other vets that makes the difference,” said Castaneda. •



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