The Veterans Fire Corps, a program sponsored by the Student Conservation Association, brings the skills of US military veterans to the fireline. In programs throughout the US West, veterans are supported in their re-entry into civilian life while developing the concrete skills needed to secure employment as wildland firefighters and join a cadre of well-trained conservationists.
by Jarrod T. Ball [email protected]
Dust and smoke billows around five figures — uniformed, heavily laden with backpacks and gear, carrying tools in their arms. They are attentive to the hazards that surround them. The lead is scanning ahead, looking for hot spots for the team to address. From the way they move as a unit, it is clear this is a trained team — familiar with each other through hours of training and service together.
This scene is easily imagined by anyone familiar with wildland fire. The scene is also reminiscent of one faced regularly by young men and women deployed to the other side of the globe, fighting as members of the United States armed forces. The tools may be very different, but the environment, dedicated training, exposure to regular hazards and reliance upon other team members all are seen on the fireline.
Upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan, US military veterans face new battles to reintegrate into civilian life. One of the most significant issues for the newly returned is unemployment. While the long-term unemployment of veterans actually trends lower than the national average, in 2012 the average unemployment rate for veterans age 18-24 was a startling 20.0%. (Employment Situation of Veterans Summary, March 20, 2013)
For all post-911 veterans the unemployment rate in June of 2013 was 7.2%. Women veterans have an even higher rate for the same month, 8.9%. (Employment Situation, Table A-5. July 5, 2013)
There is little data that pinpoints the cause of this lack of employment for young, recently returned individuals. However, common-sense analysis concludes that these veterans are attempting to enter the work force without the benefit of non-military job experience. The skills gained in military service may not directly translate into civilian employment opportunities.
The Student Conservation Association (SCA), in cooperation with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) and other conservation organizations, has developed a program to provide technical training and field experience to help address this skills gap — the Veteran Fire Corps (VFC). A national, non-profit organization, SCA has been protecting and restoring national parks, forests, marine sanctuaries, cultural landmarks and community green spaces throughout the U.S. since 1957. The SCA’s mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders and inspire lifelong stewardship of our environment and communities by engaging young people in hands-on service to the land.
Veterans identify this program as a valuable training opportunity and pathway to post-service employment. Richard, a summer 2013 participant in the SCA Veteran Fire Corps program stated in his biography:
“I joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18, and spent 6 years and 10 months as an Infantryman. I joined the SCA because nowhere else would hire me because I lacked ‘job experience’.”
Thirty four veterans completed the SCA Veteran Fire Corps in 2011 and 2012, while another 40 served this summer and fall. Results of those first two years are impressive: 76% of the graduates continued their education in natural resources/wildland fire, moved directly into positions with federal land management agencies or returned to the program as leaders. The ongoing success of participants supports the model and underscore the positive effects of SCA and USFS training.
SCA’s Conservation Corps Teams work together as a team of five Corps Members and one Project Leader for 12 weeks. The leader is most often a graduate of a prior Veteran Fire Corps program who has proven to be a capable firefighter, manager and logistician. Early on, the leaders were a mix of post-9/11 veterans and civilians with extensive leadership experience. One significant, early, lesson learned was participants consistently valued veteran leaders over their civilian counterparts, regardless of experience. The military experience of leaders enables them to relate more directly to members — both in subtle ways such as the understanding of rank and service occupation, and more overtly as in communication styles and discipline. As a result, and in keeping with SCA’s mission, members are encouraged to move on to a leadership role.
The training provided to participants has three components: training as an SCA Corps member, USFS fire training and field-based practical experience. Each training component builds on the prior training, not only focusing on technical aspects, but also softer skills such as leadership, group dynamics and conflict management.
Groups of both VFC and other SCA teams begin their service in a central location for five to six days of training.Â The primary purpose of this training is to introduce participants to the SCA and build a cohort of corps members from a variety of backgrounds and experience.
All members receive certification in Wilderness First Aid, an advanced first aid course that includes skills needed in the field. In-depth discussions and scenarios involving heat illness, personal care and treatment of injuries in a wilderness setting are particularly applicable to wildland fire fighting. Most importantly, this course begins the focus on critical thinking and situational awareness.
After the SCA training week, teams move on to their fire and chainsaw training. Trainings are provided either at Colorado Firecamp in Salida, Colorado or USFS Guard School. Both training programs offer unique experiences to the participants with the same goal — to provide all members with the training to be Red-Card eligible.
Colorado Firecamp courses work with the SCA teams training as a unit. They participate in a mix of classroom and online training, plus field work for chainsaw, fuels mitigation, fire line and mop-up training.
SCA teams often are able to align their training with their host forests’ Guard School. They train alongside both new and experienced Forest Service staff. Members value the high level of integration with these agency staff. Hearing stories and receiving feedback from career firefighters provides insights into the “real world” of wildland fire that cannot be found in the classroom. Project Leader Tim Gurnett described the training:
“On Tuesday all five VFC’s reported into guard school which is basically a Wildland Firefighter academy, conducted as closely as possible to what a real incident would be. We camped out in tents, and were issued line packs, if we didn’t already have them, as well as Nomex and tools. The crews were also separated and mixed with other agencies worker… Every small group was assigned a squad boss who was a seasoned firefighter, and who were directly responsible for (our team)… we camped with our new squads, walked in line everywhere we went carrying all of our line gear (the gear you carry on a fire, a pack, hard hat, tools, fusee’s, space blanket, water, a meal ready to eat, our yellow Nomex tops, a flat file, and gloves, plus whatever you wanted to bring.)”
After completing formalized training, each team packs up, moving onto their respective assignments. It is on these assignments that members coalesce into a unit, apply their trainings and gain real-world experience.
The SCA Project Leader works with the agency contacts to develop work plans and schedules for the balance of the team’s season. Much of the work that teams do focuses on fuels mitigation with some fuels monitoring if needed. This work can include stand thinning operations, controlled burn preparation and when conditions allow, participation in controlled burning exercises.
The Forest Service also has worked to enroll members as Administratively Determined (AD) Personnel. Due to restrictions on volunteers, workers insurance coverage and pay, members are not able to actively fight fire during their term of service with the SCA. By pre-enrolling as AD, participants are able to be “called up” to join in fire suppression activities, either as a team or individually, and to serve as an employee of the federal agency for the assignment period. This is important to members who crave the experience to help them find employment, as shown by a 2012 member, “Moral is high as ever due to the fact that today we finally received our Red Cards, and got clear(ed) to work as Administratively Determined Personnel on the fire line by our partnering agency.”
Participants who have gone on AD assignments have supported relief after hurricane Sandy, served on engine crews and taken the place of an injured hotshot crew member. Members who are able to serve on detail receive real, significant resume-building experience.
One lesson learned by the SCA over the past few seasons, is that some members are interested in work outside of fire. With the help and support of agency staff, members have been able to investigate other federal career opportunities. The most meaningful are job shadowing opportunities, in which a member spends one-on-one time with agency staff, often for several days. Members have done ride-alongs with law enforcement personnel, surveys with archeological staff and spent time with biologists in the field.
Creating this program has required learning and expanding for the organization. SCA has primarily worked with non-veteran young adult and youth members during its 56 years. The stereotypes associated with the military and veteran issues weighed on program design and implementation. It forced the SCA to test assumptions about programming and how best to serve veterans.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was a very early concern in developing the program. SCA’s risk management and medical staff were able to research and revise the process to evaluate applicants. While PTSD has impacted the military community overall, it has not significantly impacted SCA’s programming. SCA has learned that the building blocks of a strong youth program — communication, clear expectations, appropriate leadership and room for self-discovery all work to support a positive veteran program with only minor modification.
Many veterans who have had difficulty transitioning into civilian life adopt negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drugs and risky behaviors. The consequences of these behaviors often appear in the background screening process as DUI’s and other offenses. Working with the individuals and understanding the context of the offense has led SCA to evaluate how staff interprets background checks. SCA can often still provide the Veteran Fire Corps opportunity to veterans who are looking to break out of these behaviors.
The power of the outdoors, participation on a cohesive team and engagement in meaningful work has paid off for participants. After 12 weeks, SCA Veteran Fire Corps members emerge as experienced recruits for land management agencies, with the same dedication and commitment they brought to their military careers. Each member leaves the program with new perspectives, new skills and for many, a new career.
“This past week, Engine 711 (Type 6) from the Williams Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest hired me. Another Fire Corps member recently got hired onto a Minnesota crew. Without my experience with SCA, this possibly may never have happened. The VFC was the catalyst that helped both of us get jobs.” – Marshall.
Employment Situation of Veterans Summary, March 20, 2013, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,www.bls.gov.
Employment Situation, Table A-5. Employment status of the civilian population 18 years and over by veteran status, period of service, and sex, not seasonally adjusted, July 5, 2013, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Economic News Release. www.bls.gov.