Veterans Find New Service in Conservation

SCA Veterans Fire Corps team at a prescribed burn in Florida, 2015

SCA Member Wesley Adams reflects on Veterans opportunities

Above: SCA Veterans Fire Corps members Wesley Adams, Benjamin Pattyson, Andrew McFarland, Laren Nowell, Demetric Wade, and Ramon Delgado at a prescribed burn in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge near Tallahassee, Florida.

Transitioning from the military is quite the culture shock. Some Veterans struggle as they figure out what they want to do next and where they’ll fit in society. The biggest thing I had trouble with is the reality that you’ll have to take a couple steps back before you can take the next step forward.

What I mean is that a lot of Veterans, including myself, thought that we’d transition into a civilian career with the same responsibilities, compensation and authority, but the reality is that it’s quite difficult to transition into something that’s equal to what you had in the military. It can lead Veterans to believe that what we did in the service is not valuable to a prospective employer, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves since not many civilian jobs require accurate and continuous mortar fire. At the end of the day, many of us feel like we’ve lost that sense of accomplishment. Transitioning from a job that denies the Taliban a safe haven in Afghanistan to one that requires you to be at school on time can make a Veteran want to lead a purposeful life again.

I saw it on the news one night. Flames were stretching hundreds of feet into the sky while a long procession of headlights indicated entire communities were having to evacuate. It was a wildfire in the Pacific Northwest.

This force of nature is becoming more frequent and intense. Undoubtedly wildfires will continue to make headlines every year as lives are lost, homes are destroyed and millions of acres of lands left charred. Fueled by volatile weather conditions and overgrown vegetation on public and private lands, these natural and human caused disasters are ever increasing and will require a rise in suppression efforts to meet this new challenge. Among those filling the ranks of these arduous positions are transitioning Veterans aiming to start a new career in forestry and fire management as wildland firefighters.

At the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in central Texas, members of the Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps (VFC) are assisting fire management officials with prescribed fires, tree thinning projects, and even wildfire suppression. The VFC is a three to six month AmeriCorps-funded paid internship that gives transitioning veterans the professional qualifications and experience to compete for a position within a wildland fire management organization. Open to recent-era Veterans discharged under Honorable conditions, men and women interested in conservation and stewardship by direct application of prescribed fire to reduce ground herbaceous growth to reach land management objectives should look into this program. Dallas Baganz, California native and team member points out:

“You have this massive networking opportunity. You have your fellow Veterans that talk about what life was like for them after they got out, their career goals, and what they are doing to make it happen. Then I can go right next door and talk with the fire and refuge personnel about career options and job placement.”

Even though we no longer wear the cloth of the nation, a desire to serve still remains ever present in today’s Veterans. We are becoming firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMS personnel. We are attending college, starting business, and having families. Although the pace may be a bit slower when compared to the military, I’ve found that the sense of accomplishment I have when I look back at my day’s toil is more than enough.

Veteran fire and forestry programs, like the Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps, show a strong commitment to America’s transitioning service member and our natural resources by promoting the development of a conservation minded citizen whose service toward natural resource preservation is facilitated through fire manipulation and suppression.