I decided to apply for the VetsWork GreenCorps AmeriCorps program through the Mt. Adams Institute and the Umatilla National Forest, because I was in great need of a change in my life. While I enjoyed my time in the Army, garrison life did not provide the daily sense of fulfillment and sense of purpose I need. Having recently returned from overseas, I had a hard time accepting garrison life again. I enjoy feeling as if I am working toward a goal and that I am accomplishing things daily as I work toward that goal. Being physically and mentally engaged in my work is also extremely important to me. As I neared the end of my term of service with the Army, I spent countless hours researching other options. I looked into going back to school, into continuing what I had done in the Army as a civilian, as well as a multitude of other options.
While conducting this research, I came across the VetsWork Greencorps program, the Mt. Adams Institute, and the Umatilla National Forest. This program seemed to bring together my love of the outdoors, my desire to manage and protect our natural resources, and physically and mentally demanding work. I knew I had to apply to the program, and luckily, I was accepted as a program participant.
Prior to arriving in Trout Lake, Washington to start as member of the Umatilla National Forest Veteran Crew, I was hoping this program would provide me with the sense of purpose and fulfillment I desperately needed. I had a sense of nervousness coupled with immense excitement as I found out I was selected to participate in the program. This feeling only grew as I headed westward from New York to Washington. While driving, I had a lot of time to think about the program and what I might experience through it. I thought about connecting with new people who have a passion for the outdoors. I thought about whether or not I would be able to cut it as a wildland firefighter. I thought about whether or not this program and wildland firefighting would provide me with the sense of fulfillment I am seeking. I thought about these things and more as I drove mile after mile toward Trout Lake.
It has been approximately three weeks since the program has started. While there have been some periods of death by PowerPoint, I have found the blocks of instruction and work to be engaging and interesting. We typically begin our days with some physical training such as a run, a circuit training, or a hike with beautiful vistas of the surrounding area. Then it is off to a class or to the thinning unit for the rest of the work day.
Our accommodations at the Frazier Bunkhouse on the Umatilla National Forest are quite comfortable, but the bunkhouse is remote with little connectivity to the outside world. While having little to no internet and cellular service is frustrating at times, it has helped to bring the crew members closer together. People seem somewhat less reliant on their cell phones, and more willing to socialize with each other. I have seen people cooking together and sharing meals, enjoying a few post work beverages around the firepit, playing games and watching movies with each other, and just engaging in interesting (often comical) conversations.
Currently, I am working toward getting my sawyer certification, as are the other members participating in the program. We need this to operate chainsaws as we work toward completing the forest thinning project we have been tasked with in the Umatilla National Forest. Ultimately, this thinning project will help make the forest healthier and reduce the risk of large scale fires by reducing the amount of fuel available to burn. Thinning is physically taxing but rewarding. At the end of each day, I look over the area I was helping to thin and see the fruits of the crew’s labor. Where we are thinning is an area of dense deciduous forest, filled mostly with lodgepoles, Douglas firs, western larch, and ponderosa pines. The forest is so thick in spots, it looks like an impenetrable wall of pine. Often times you will hear vehicles passing on the road that runs through the middle of our work area or other crew members working nearby, but it is impossible to see them through the trees.
While I am enjoying the thinning work and courses we are going through, I am enjoying the other members of the crew the most. Everybody seems invested in the program and its goals. We have all been working and living together really well so far. Everybody has their own unique personality which only helps to enrich our experiences. There are some definite characters on the crew. All of us being veterans also helps to strengthen our bonds as a crew. It’s hard to explain but being veterans and having certain shared experiences that come with that, has allowed us to form into a family unit of sorts in a very short period of time.
From what I have gathered in the three weeks we have all been living and working with each other, all of us needed a significant change in our lives. We all seem hopeful this program and the experiences we have while going through it will help lead to this change. Perhaps some of us will learn that natural resource management and wildland firefighting are ideal professions for our post military lives, or perhaps we will find they are not. Whatever our paths are after this program concludes, I feel confidant we will all be stronger, we will all experience personal growth, and that we will all have a clearer sense of what we want out of life.
In the near future, we will all be attending fire school to obtain the necessary certifications to be wildland firefighters. I am really looking forward to this and to the upcoming fire season. As we near fire season and as we go through the remainder of this program, I look forward to growing closer to my fellow crew members and I hope we all find that change we are looking for.