“Veteran Fire Corps…It’s a win-win for all — except the wildﬁres.”
After graduating from high school in Williamson, Wayne County, I did combat tours with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan and Iraq. But like the thousands of other vets returning to upstate New York, I was left wondering what to do next. Where could I put my military training to best use? How could I continue giving back to the country that I love?
I found my answers in an unexpected place. I had been working on degrees in Natural Resource Conservation and Law Enforcement at Finger Lakes Community College in Hopewell, Ontario County, when a friend told me about the Veterans Fire Corps. The Corps is a 90-day training program conducted by the nonprofit Student Conservation Association in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. SCA, the nation’s largest conservation service organization for young adults, developed the initiative to combine its conservation expertise with the needs and skills of young returning veterans.
The program gave me the direction and purpose I had been missing. As a rifleman in the Marines serving with 3/3 Kilo Company, I faced deadly foes overseas. The enemy that the men and women in my veterans fire crew now face is no less lethal, namely the more than 32,000 wildfires that have plagued our country this year.
During my tenure with the Veterans Fire Corps, I’ve been stationed in Coconino National Forest and elsewhere in Arizona, as well as in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming. But we don’t only operate out west. Last year, after Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast, my Arizona crew volunteered for the cleanup and recovery efforts in New York and New Jersey. We went from town to town using our forest management skills to remove trees, open roads and clear channels so supplies could reach the hardest hit communities. Making this kind of impact is exactly why I joined the Veterans Fire Corps.
It’s hard to express the impact the program has on military veterans. Finding a job and building a career is a challenge for many veterans returning home from military service. It’s particularly difficult to find a job that not only relates closely to military service but draws directly on military training and discipline. The Veterans Fire Corps addresses all of that: taking advantage of military training — especially the ability to adapt in rapidly changing, high-pressure conditions — in order to confront fires and other natural disasters of national significance.
For now, the Corps only operates from May through December, when the threat of wildfires is greatest. While that provides me with time to complete my college degree at Finger Lakes Community College, it’s not ideal for combating wildfires. There’s a tremendous opportunity for growth, and to keep the program running year-round.
One thing is crystal clear as we watch the increasing damage of wildfires: fire mitigation is essential all year long. It’s a mistake to simply react to fires. We must also take action to reduce the potential for their destructive power.
The benefits of the Veterans Fire Corps, in that regard, are clear. It provides fire mitigation, enhances conservation, and trains more firefighters, while also providing job opportunities for veterans. In addition, the Corps helps veterans transition back into civilian life.
That can be a tough road, as I know firsthand from the uncertainty I felt when I returned home to Williamson. But it’s been easier for me now that I’m back as part of a team. We have a uniform again and a real sense of importance that we understood in the military. It’s hard to match the camaraderie we had in the military, but the Veterans Fire Corps comes close.
The Veteran Fire Corps bolsters the numbers of trained firefighters, employs veterans while giving them a new direction, and changes lives. It’s a win-win for all — except the wildfires.
Michael Madalena is a Williamson, Wayne County, native who is a crew leader with the Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps.