Finding a New Mission: A U.S. Army Veteran on Connecting Veterans and Public Lands for the Benefit of Both

 


Learn more about Veterans Conservation Corps in Veterans Service and Conservation Corps: Career Pathways through Continued Service, a publication of The Corps Network (November 2017). 



By Joshua Tuohy, Government Relations Coordinator at The Corps Network
(pictured below with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke)


Military veterans representing all branches of service gathered in Washington, DC last week to join the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks campaign in advocating for ways to address the infrastructure needs of our national parks. 

The connection between veterans and parks might not immediately be obvious, but there is a strong bond. The individuals who came to Washington don’t just identify as veterans; they are hunters, anglers, hikers, kayakers, wildlife photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts who found renewed meaning and peace in their lives through the Great Outdoors.

About a third of all national parks commemorate and interpret military history, including 25 battlefields and 14 national cemeteries. Some of these parks manage decommissioned forts and bases that once trained our military and protected our country. These 156 sites document and educate future generations, yet they account for nearly half of the National Park Service’s more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance.

For two days last week, veterans voiced their concerns to 25 Members of Congress on issues ranging from the accessibility of parks for those with disabilities, to underfunded infrastructure maintenance and ways to enhance the visitor experience. The efforts reached a high point with a candid roundtable discussion convened by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, himself a former Navy SEAL. I applaud the Secretary for his strong support for increased engagement of veterans and military families on public lands, and his commitment to veterans at the Department of the Interior. I am encouraged that we have a veteran at the position of Secretary overseeing our public lands.

I am a six-year U.S. Army infantry veteran.  I’ve always loved the outdoors; some of my fondest memories are of hiking and snowshoeing through Mt. Rainier National Park while stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA. Places like this would play an integral role in my recovery after a roadside bomb took the lives of three of my comrades and my leg in Afghanistan in 2009.  I’d eventually find myself standing on the literal edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, taking off my leg to cliff dive into Crater Lake. I’d once again meander through the fog in the elevation of Mt. Rainier. These moments fostered necessary self-assurance and forged new conviction. It was only out there that I rediscovered a virtue I had previously known in the military: that I am connected to something far greater than myself.

The importance of our public lands and national parks to veterans cannot be understated.  They offer an opportunity for catharsis for the wounded and those seeking new adventure and a sense of belonging.  Such experiences are so important to the transition process from service member to civilian – a process without any defined timeline or blueprint. 

One way to ensure more veterans benefit from time in the Great Outdoors and have an opportunity to continue their mission of service to country is through Veterans Corps. Veterans Corps are locally-based programs that connect veterans to parks and the outdoors by giving them the opportunity to train for careers in resource management through national service and AmeriCorps projects conserving our public lands and forests. Many former service members experience a lack of purpose, lack of civilian job confidence, and lack of peer support. Service in Veterans Corps offers an opportunity to purge these notions, renew a sense of purpose and mission, and author a new chapter in life.

Since 2009, Veterans Corps across the country have engaged former military in projects ranging from invasive species removal and the preservation of historic properties, to trails restoration and wildfire management. Many of these projects take place at national parks, forests and refuges and help reduce the maintenance backlog. All while engaging former military members in quality mission-driven and skills-based service and apprenticeship programs.
 


Veterans Fire Corps members with Conservation Legacy
 

The Corps model benefits veterans in a range of ways: it provides a similar structure and sense of purpose as the military; offers the therapeutic benefits of getting outdoors and working with fellow veterans; and helps participants re-acclimate to civilian life through skills development and other supportive services. In a 2016 survey, 90 percent of Veterans Corps alumni surveyed indicated that Corps opportunities helped them transition from the military.

Veterans Corps are part of a larger Corps movement – the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps: a national initiative, through public-private partnerships, to spread the word about modern-day Corps and annually engage 100,000 young adults and veterans in AmeriCorps and national service to strengthen our infrastructure, rural and urban communities, and public lands.

21CSC is part of a solution to fixing the maintenance issues faced by our resource management agencies. With their talents, commitment to service, and passion for the outdoors, recent veterans are a critical element.

Let us, as a nation, continue to support our public lands with the kind of zeal we put into supporting our veterans. Let us support the engagement of veterans in the Great Outdoors. Let us recognize the values we display when we properly manage our public lands, as well as the values we demonstrate when we let parks, and our sense of service to others, fall into disrepair.

Veterans Corps can answer the call for a new mission. Let us hope our lawmakers and leadership answer our calls to address deferred maintenance and support veterans, and citizens generally, in restoring our parks and public lands. As a nation, let us all value service to America’s lands and communities.
 

Learn more about Veterans Conservation Corps in Veterans Service and Conservation Corps: Career Pathways through Continued Service, a publication of The Corps Network (November 2017).  

Veterans Corps Discussed at Capitol Hill Briefing Hosted by House Outdoor Recreation Caucus and Outdoor Industry Association on Veterans and the Outdoors

Amy Sovocool, Co-CEO of Conservation Legacy, joined panelists from several outdoor and veteran-related organizations to discuss model and benefits of Veterans Conservation Corps programs.

Fresno Local Conservation Corps Helps Prepare New Home for Veterans



After a decade of efforts to create a veterans home in Fresno, California, a $250 million home was completed in 2012 thanks to the collaboration of numerous California government agencies. The home includes an on-site bank, post office, chapel, store, barber shop, and even a miniature golf course. But because of California’s budget constraints, the home’s 300 rooms and 30 acre landscape sat virtually untouched for an entire year. With the opening planned for October of 2013, a custodian and groundskeeper were finally hired in June to maintain and restore the landscape and home. This mountain of work proved challenging for 2 people, and for that reason the Fresno Local Conservation Corps saw an opportunity to help both the veterans and their own Corpsmembers.

Using funds from a federal Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration grant, the Corps deployed 31 participants of their CORPS Program (Career Opportunities Reached Through Participation in Service), to help the California Department of Affairs ready the veterans home and its landscape. This task was aligned with the grant’s goals to help Corpsmembers earn their high school diplomas, earn industry recognized credentials, and give back to their communities. Many of the Corpsmembers had a background with the juvenile justice system, so a project where they could interact with and honor veterans – those who have sacrificed so much for our country –  was appealing.

Beginning in June, Corpsmembers worked at the home 25 hours a week. They started by helping to clean the home, which had a considerable amount of dust, dead insects, and other cleaning needs because of its time without maintenance. They also helped build and assemble furniture for the rooms.

The $5 million landscape, however, was where Corpsmembers perhaps made their largest impact. They helped trim back 30 acres full of overgrown grass and unruly trees and shrubs that were hard on the eyes and a potential fire hazard. After that was accomplished, they planted approximately 1500 flowers and also helped install 54 flag brackets to hold flags from families that wish to honor their fallen relatives who served.



As a culminating event, Corpsmembers helped setup and break-down over 2000 chairs for the grand opening of the home in October. The event was attended by many high-ranking military officials, community leaders, future residents, and government dignitaries, including California Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Representative Jim Costa.

In total, Corpsmembers contributed 1,314 hours of service at the veterans home. The Corps estimates that the overall value of this time spent was worth $28,077. Beyond dollars and time invested in their own community, Corpsmembers also gained valuable experience by learning janitorial skills, furniture assembly, irrigation maintenance, tree trimming, and landscaping. Many of them also accrued significant hours that will contribute toward earning their AmeriCorps Education Awards, which will help them pay for future education like college. Two Corpsmembers have also been approached by the Fresno Veterans Home staff about applying for full-time positions. The Lead Groundskeeper for the home has said “Without the help of the Local Conservation Corps, I simply do not know what we would have done. There is no possible way that we could be where we are today without you.”

The great news is that Corpsmembers will continue to serve at the veterans’ home and have opportunities to build relationships with residents. The Corps will be providing all recycling services to the facility going forward, and will continue to help maintain the landscape. They are also planning for their Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service project to take place at the home, with assistance from the veterans living there. This is truly work that matters.

SCA's Veterans Fire Corps Receives National and Local Press Attention


 

Thank you to Kevin Hamilton, SCA, Vice President of Communications, for sharing these articles

The Student Conservation Association's Veterans Fire Corps recently received press coverage in Stars and Stripes, The Buffalo Bulletin (Wyoming), and The Craig Daily Press (Colorado). Click the links below to read the articles in their entirety and find out how the Corps helps veterans transition back to civilian life.


 

Stars and Stripes

By Michael A. Madalena 

The men and women I’m training know we’re about to confront a merciless enemy. We are all military veterans, and in the field we have an objective, a plan, and the flexibility to change tactics midstream — just as in the armed forces.

In this case our adversary isn’t al-Qaida or any of the other combatants I faced with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq; it’s not even human but it eats, breathes and grows.

It’s the nearly 32,000 wildfires that the U.S. Department of the Interior says have burned more than 3.4 million acres nationwide this year. These are not low-intensity ground fires, but “mega fires” created from lack of mitigation and irregular historic fire regimes.

I’m a crew leader for the nonprofit Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps...keep reading.

 

The Buffalo Bulletin

By Holly Kays

When Joe Svidron’s days as an active member of the U.S. Marine Corps ended and his time as a park management major began, the transition was anything but smooth. After four years in the military, college was like a foreign land, full of younger students whose world of fashion and fads was nothing like the one Svidron left when he enlisted, and military discipline had nothing in common with college life.
 
“Going back to school wasn’t so great, and it was hard to acclimate because everybody’s five, six, seven years younger than you,” Svidron said. “The things they’re doing now you had no clue were going on when you were in the military, so it’s kind of foreign to you. You’re looking for that camaraderie and that sense of purpose and accomplishment again, and it’s not really there in the civilian sector.”
 
All that changed when Svidron stumbled across an advertisement for the Student Conservation Association Veterans Fire Corps...keep reading.

 

The Craig Daily Press

By Matt Stensland

After spending a year deployed with the Army in Iraq, Elder Pyatt had to adjust to civilian life when he finished his service in 2008.

Life in the military moves much faster, said Pyatt, who served to earn money for college.

“There is an adjustment period,” he said.

In the Army, Pyatt used mechanic’s tools to work on large military vehicles. This summer, he is removing limbs from beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees near Stagecoach with a chain saw, which he never really had used before.

“Not in this capacity,” Pyatt said. “Like yard work kind of stuff.”

Pyatt, whose goal is to earn a master's degree, is joined by three other veterans and a crew leader...keep reading

Video Features California Conservation Corps Veterans in Fisheries Work

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service has produced an outstanding video on a program involving former military veterans.  The veterans, working with NOAA, the U.S. Forest Service, the California Conservation Corps and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, are monitoring fish populations and restoring habitat.  The work has included completing 152 spawner surveys and surveying 228 miles of stream along California's North Coast.

The video can be found here (in the event the embedded version isn't working below).

Recommended Reading: "The War at Home: The Struggle for Veterans to Find Jobs”

 

A very good article was published recently called “The War at Home: The Struggle for Veterans to Find Jobs.” Our partner Veterans Green Jobs is listed as one of the recommended resources available for returning veterans to find employment through programs like Veterans Conservation Corps. Here’s a good segment that shows how the article provides a more comprehensive explanation for why veterans can often struggle upon returning home:

“Military veterans are not taught how to self-promote,” said Lida Citroen, who has a resource on her website specifically devoted to help veterans transition to civilian jobs. “To be successful in service, it is important to put troop and mission ahead of self. Unfortunately, when veterans try to enter the civilian marketplace, they quickly realize they don’t know how to sell themselves to potential employers.”

You can read the full article here.

Veterans-youth conservation partnership to restore Colorado’s public lands

 

Taken from Pagosun.com - by Jennifer Freeman, Special to the SUN  

The Conservation Lands Foundation and the Colorado Youth Corps Association have announced the launch of their new Veterans-Youth Conservation Corps Partnership at a celebration and kickoff in Denver.

Nearly 100 supporters gathered to launch this new public-private collaboration that unites the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), conservation corps, private industry and veterans groups to provide Colorado veterans and youth with employment and job training opportunities working to restore and maintain Colorado’s public lands.

“When you take Colorado youth corps, tie them in with veterans, mix that with the Bureau of Land Management staff that’s in Colorado, then you begin to get a pretty rich soup,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper, addressing the crowd. “Mix in some private industry funders to provide resources or donations, add the Conservation Lands Foundation. Now it’s seasoned, now it’s got heat and energy.”

Working on Colorado’s public lands, including the McInnis Canyon and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Areas and Canyons of the Ancients, corps members will work 10-hour days, four days a week on a variety of projects. The veterans and young people will be fixing trails, improving wildlife habitat, restoring wetlands and rivers, and cutting out unhealthy trees or undergrowth that would readily feed forest fires.

“This partnership is about training and employing our veterans and young people; they are our future conservationists, our future resource managers, and having the opportunity to hone their skills in this setting is invaluable,” commented Jennifer Freeman, executive director at the Colorado Youth Corps Association. “We look forward to expanding job opportunities for young people and veterans who want to serve the people and lands of Colorado.”

Colorado BLM is providing some funding for the veterans and youth corps for 2013. The Conservation Lands Foundation is leading an effort to seek additional funding from energy companies that work in Colorado and other private industries in order to expand funding for this partnership.

In addition to Gov. Hickenlooper, two current conservation corps members — former Marine Corey Adamy and Western Colorado Conservation Corps crew leader Eddica Tuttle — also spoke at the event.

Tuttle has worked since 2011 for the Western Colorado Conservation Corps near Grand Junction, earning AmeriCorps Education Awards for higher education and the opportunity to be the first in her immediate family to attend college. Adamy is a Marine Corps veteran and leads a crew of veterans in the Durango-Farmington area in a wildlands firefighting program for the Southwest Conservation Corps.

Adamy talked about how veterans often miss the camaraderie and physical activity they experienced in the military. Many need to transition back into civilian life, want to physically work outdoors and they enjoy the teamwork and structure of a conservation corps.?

“The agencies (such as BLM) love the veterans crews and our work,” Adamy stated. “We’re doing great work on the ground with our wildlands fire program that they couldn’t get done with just the funds they have.”

Charlotte Overby, with the Conservation Lands Foundation, sees the partnership as a great way to invite the private sector to show their support for veterans and young people, be good stewards of some of the state’s most treasured public lands and take pride in what they accomplish.

“This is an ideal partnership with the potential to be robust and productive in job creation and habitat restoration,” Overby stated. “Colorado’s public lands are part of our shared outdoor heritage and so important to our economy, and preserving them for future generations must be a priority. This partnership will create immediate job opportunities and prepare our future natural resource stewards to carry out that mission.”

Orange County Conservation Corps Helps Staff Veterans Day Event and Meet Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez

Corps Members (middle row, left to right) Andrew Aguirre, Michael Ramirez, Jordan Ramirez, (front row) Marlene Villegas Gonzalez, Julian Gonzalez and (not pictured) Myriah Vasquez met Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (front row, center) and many supportive veterans.

From Orange County Conservation Corps

Veterans continue to be an inspiration at home. Six of our Corps Members volunteered at the Veterans Day Flag Raising Ceremony and Job Fair in Santa Ana on November 8 and were honored to meet many service men and women, as well as Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Mayor Miguel Pulido of Santa Ana.

Our Corps Members helped set up for the event, control traffic and clean up afterwards, which kept them pretty busy throughout the day. Still, they had time to explore the booths and meet employers, exposing them to possibilities they might not have otherwise known about. They got a much better idea of what options there are specifically for veterans.

As far as their experience with the veterans attending the event: "They were amazed that there were so many people giving them support," said Program Specialist Ralph Jimenez. As Corps Members thanked veterans for their service, the veterans encouraged the Corps Members to continue their education and be loyal to themselves and their country. By the end of the day, veterans sought out Corps Members to see if they had any more questions.

Making a Positive Transition from the Marine Corps to a Conservation Corps


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2011 Corpsmember of the Year, 

Chris Thomas



Chris took this photo while 60 feet up on a utility pole

Chris Thomas, a former member of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), won Corpsmember of the Year in 2011 for his commitment to service. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Chris and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2011 National Conference.

Chris Thomas does not hesitate to volunteer his time. Now a power lineman, Chris immediately went to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to help get the electricity flowing again. While in school to become a lineman, Chris volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for low-income families. Before school, he gave a lot of time to the Red Cross. And prior to any of these acts of volunteerism, Chris served in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Chris has faced many challenges in his life. He and his three siblings were raised by their mother, a cervical cancer survivor, who had to work three jobs to support the family by herself. During Chris’s four years of service in the Marines (beginning in 2005), he was wounded twice. He received shrapnel in the chest and was stabbed once, leading to a medical discharge. It was soon after this that he joined the California Conservation Corps (CCC) in 2009.

Chris, who is now 24, heard about the CCC from a cousin who served as a Corpsmember. The Corps seemed like a logical transition from military-life to civilian-life, but the change ended up being more difficult than Chris had anticipated.

“I had anger issues, quick to snap. Thought everyone should talk, work, act just like I did. If you didn't, then just get out of my way,” said Chris. “The CCC helped me curve that Marine Corps mentality, which in civilian life is a good thing.”

Through the Conservation Corps, Chris learned how to accept and embrace diversity. His CCC experiences helped him ease out of only being surrounded by other Marines who shared the same strict lifestyle and discipline. Looking back, Chris says his greatest learning experience came when he transitioned from working with the Corps in Chico, California to working with the Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps. 

“Working in Sacramento put all that I learned to the test. In Chico I dealt with middle class white people with different backgrounds, but [we] still could find common ground,” said Chris. “In Sacramento, these kids were…cliché gangsters. Saggy pants, if it weren't for curse words I don't think they could complete a sentence…Before the CCC I would have been yelling, and firing left and right. But I was able to keep a calm head and make the crew I ran the most respected in the company.”

Chris says his background with the Marines taught him the meaning of hard work and gave him the building blocks to be a strong leader. As a Crew Leader with the CCC, Chris led others in planting trees, habitat restoration projects, and fire fuel reduction programs. He logged nearly 250 volunteer hours, well above the 48 hours the Corps requires. It was as a result of this dedication that he earned the Silver Presidential Service Award from the Corporation for National Service in September 2010.

After leaving the CCC in 2011, Chris worked as a Supervisor with the Sacramento Regional Conservation Corps. He then moved to Meridian, Idaho to attend North Western Lineman College, where he served as class president. After earning his certifications from NLC, Chris moved to Big Spring, Texas, where he is currently working as a power lineman. He does everything from setting up utility poles to hooking up transformers.

Chris isn’t sure what his life would look like today without the California Conservation Corps. Chris will never be able to forget all of the different people he met with the Corps, particularly his mentor and former supervisor, Clayton Forbes. He says he would love to eventually return to the CCC to get back to doing the kind of work he misses and to help other young people in the way he was helped.

“I have no idea where I would be without the Corps,” said Chris. “Honestly I would probably be locked up for hurting someone. Or possibly working for some private security company overseas.” 

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Chris says, “Take everything you can from the Corps. Some training comes up? – go. A crew needs an extra hand for a spike? – go. Although at times Corps life might seem arduous and mundane, you will miss it.”

Military Vets Help Restore Fish Habitat (a project of the California Conservation Corps)

Veterans will get a chance to train and work on habitat restoration and fisheries monitoring through a project funded by NOAA and administered in partnership with the California Conservation Corps and California’s Department of Fish and Game. During the yearlong program of paid training and hands-on experience, veterans will spend part of the time on habitat restoration and will also receive training and experience in firefighting and reducing fire hazards. “This is a win-win for everyone,” said Eric Schwaab, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries. “Military veterans have tremendous skills to offer, and by helping to restore fish habitats they will be supporting the important role of commercial and recreational fishing in the economy. Restoration jobs pay dividends twice, first because they put people to work immediately, and then because restoration benefits our fisheries, tourism, and coastal communities for years to come.” Veterans will start the program by taking courses in how to collect data and evaluate the effectiveness of coastal and marine habitat restoration. By mid- to late October, they will begin monitoring several river restoration sites in Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino counties that were designed to increase spawning and rearing habitat for populations of endangered coho salmon in accordance with the recovery plan developed under the Endangered Species Act. The restored habitat should also help boost populations of Chinook and steelhead trout as well as improve environmental quality generally.  See the full press release here.

Veterans interested in joining the fisheries crew should contact the California Conservation Corps’ Tina Ratcliff at 916-341-3123 or tina.ratcliff[at]ccc.ca.gov

Pages