USA — A new program on Arizona’s national forests is trying to help put a dent in the high unemployment rate for young veterans while fostering environmental conservation education.
The Veterans Fire Corps program hired veterans who formed teams of wildland firefighters to help with prescribed burns and brush thinning on the Prescott and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests, with the help of the Student Conservation Association. They’ve also helped build fence and trails.
It’s a perfect transition, the veterans working out of Prescott said.
“It relates to our military history and makes me feel comfortable,” said Chris Stacy, a native of Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska who logged 9,000 miles as a lead vehicle convoy driver delivering supplies in Iraq and continues to serve in the National Guard. “We all integrated really fast.”
For example, wildland firefighting crews use the Incident Command System that the military created.
“It’s an easy transition,” agreed Marshall Kulp, who worked at an Army refueling station in Iraq and just got out of the Army this spring. “The enemy is fire.”
The two jobs also share an emphasis on responsibility and discipline, Kulp added.
Four veterans are working here with project leader Bobby Woelz of the Student Conservation Association.
The veterans get a stipend, lodging, food and medical coverage along with an opportunity to enroll in the AmeriCorps Education Award program and get extra college tuition or loan support in the future. All four already have some level of college education.
They completed rigorous training in wilderness first aid, fire ecology, chainsaw use and wildland firefighting, earning red cards that make them eligible for wildland firefighting jobs.
While the national unemployment rate is about 9 percent, the unemployment rate for the nation’s 2.3 million war veterans is over 13 percent.
The program also furthers the Student Conservation Association’s goal of building the next generation of conservation leaders and inspiring environmental stewardship.
The goal appears to have been fulfilled on the Prescott National Forest.
The Veterans Fire Corps team members working on the Prescott National Forest all hail from other states, and most said they previously had no idea that Arizona even had forests.
“I thought it was all desert,” said Kulp, who grew up in Indianapolis.
Now nearing the end of their three-month stint, the team members are considering jobs related to public lands and environmental conservation.
Kulp wants to be a smokejumper. He said he really enjoys the discipline, camaraderie, outdoors physical work and the opportunity to help people. He already has a degree in outdoor recreation and resource management.
Tim Gurnett, an Omaha native who has spent the past 5.5 years in active duty in Iceland, Bahrain, Kuwait and Hawaii, wants to be a law enforcement officer on public lands. He got a taste of the work during training on the Prescott National Forest, and next year he’s headed to the National Park Service Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program Academy in Rangely, Colo. He’s nearly finished earning an environmental studies degree.
“The whole experience will really stick with me,” Gurnett said. “It gives you a different respect for people who work in the forest.”
Kelli Smith, who hails from Palmdale, Calif. and already has a degree in anthropology after serving four years in Army air defense in El Paso, is joining a Prescott Forest archaeologist during a typical day’s work before heading to a dig in Utah soon.
And Stacy said he’s thinking about getting a helicopter pilot’s license and finishing college. He’s also expressed interest in being an SCA congressional intern focusing on water conservation and climate change.
Woelz said the vets are more mature and responsible than other young adults when they first join Student Conservation Association teams.
“They make my job a lot easier in some respects,” he said.
Prescott National Forest Fire Staff Officer Pete Gordon said the veterans have been hard working, eager and motivated to learn.
“I’m just proud that we’re doing a little bit here to pay back the folks who made a sacrifice to our country,” he said.