Every year, many returning veterans continue their service to our country by participating in 21CSC programs. Several 21CSC member organizations operate programs specifically designed to engage former military service members in public lands stewardship. Throughout November, we will feature stories about some of these programs and the extraordinary people who serve in them.
From Mt. Adams Institute –
My name is Robert McDonald. I am currently working for the North Fork John Day Fire and Fuels department on the Umatilla National Forest. In 2005 I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and started the process of becoming an infantry machine gunner. Once I completed my basic training at MCRD San Diego I began training at SOI School of Infantry. I finished as a squad leader of Machine Gunners and looked forward to fleet. I was stationed at MCBH Kaneohe Bay with 1st battalion 3rd Marines on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. I went on to do two tours in Al Anbar province, Iraq.
In 2009 my enlistment was up and I decided I was ready for the next challenge. Unfortunately like many infantry guys my training and experiences in the Marines did not translate well into a civilian role. I began to look for a path or direction in life that would satisfy my desire of service, honor and duty. So I began to go to school and look for that direction. While enrolled I also worked full-time throughout my entire college degree. I eventually settled on a Bachelors of Science degree in Diplomacy and Military Studies, but in the end I could not justify leaving my wife to go be a foreign diplomat. I wanted a lifestyle that would both suit my needs, but also my wife’s. I began to fully thrust myself into work, but unfortunately I wasn’t doing anything that I had originally set out to do: Service, honor or duty. Instead I was working menial jobs with only menial tasks and compensation. I wanted to break free from this life and look for something else.
We decided it was time to leave Hawaii after almost ten years of calling it home and look for something that I could call a career that meets my standards as well as bringing balance to the home life. I have always enjoyed a lifestyle of being an outdoorsman. Growing up in Texas, I spent summers camping, fishing, and all around being a kid outside. In Hawaii I took up surfing, boating, paddling, swimming, hiking, camping and many more countless outdoor activities. So I knew one thing, I wanted to work outdoors not only because I enjoyed it so much, but also so I can give back to what I have always taken advantage of. Going back to my sense of service, honor and duty I felt the need to find something where I could actively assist the community. In my pursuit of a career I found the Forest Service and Wildland Firefighting. Finally something clicked.
While looking for positions and beginning to find out the process, I discovered a rare opportunity that would give me the training, exposure and opportunity to work with the forest service, while allowing me to give back to the community. I started talking to Mt. Adams Institute (MAI) about their VetsWork GreenCorps program, which helps prepare individuals for a career in wildland firefighting and wildfire landscape management. After about five minutes I decided this is the avenue that I needed to take. I signed up for AmeriCorps and applied to their VetsWork GreenCorps program. To be honest I didn’t know much about either AmeriCorps or VetsWork GreenCorps, but the more I investigated the more I realized that these programs are basically the modern day equivalency to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). I have always known about the CCC through campgrounds I visited as a child such as Devils Den in Arkansas. So I immediately had a sense of respect in being involved with such a program. I also felt that the focus on bringing military veterans into these programs and into the natural resource workforce was a brilliant idea. Who better to protect our natural resources and lands than those who have already been protecting our nation? I entered the twelve week program with a basic understanding of what we were about to do, but I had no idea where I would end up.
I started in April of 2016 at Trout Lake, Washington for the MAI orientation. This was the first time I met actual wildland firefighters working for the Forest Service out of the Umatilla National Forest. I was introduced to my immediate overhead, the crew boss, assistant and squad lead for the Umatilla Veterans Crew. These guys all had ties to the military through personal service, family or friends. They all had long and varying careers with the Forest Service everything from experience on hotshot crews to rappelling. I immediately knew we were all in the right hands.
After orientation we traveled to our new home at the Frazier bunkhouse and began our S212 training (chainsaw training) and quickly learned of the importance of a good sawyer not just on fuels reduction projects, but also in fire. We all became certified to run chainsaws, granted at varying degrees. We all ran chainsaws all day every day. Eventually all of the VetsWork GreenCorps members went to Fire School where we learned how to be good wildland firefighters. We came back to our crew ready to fight fire, but realistically we are a vegetation crew which means we thin and thin a lot. We spent the next several weeks thinning until finally we were given a fire assignment. This summer we spent 20 days on three different fire assignments and almost that much on prescribed fires in our region.
When I came out to Oregon I didn’t have a plan for my future or what Leslie, my wife, would be doing. While I was in the VetsWork GreenCorps program each crew member was offered positions to transition from AmeriCorps members to 1039 Temporary Seasonal Employees with the Forest. Almost everyone who was offered accepted the position. Nearly at the same time we were all offered to apply for an apprenticeship program through the Forest Service. Simultaneously my wife found a job working for the Umatilla Forest at the Headquarters office just half an hour away. She ended up getting the position and when I finished the VetsWork GreenCorps program I went home, got her and all of our stuff and moved to Eastern Oregon. When I returned I was told I would be given the opportunity to interview for the apprenticeship program. Almost six weeks later I found out that I was offered the position. I immediately accepted and now I am currently in the program. It is a three to five year career development program through the Forest Service that culminates into a permanent position as a GS5 on the North Fork John Day Ranger District.
My story is not a common one. The fact that I started the season as someone who never really had any interaction in natural resources, the Forest Service or this region of the United States to now having what basically equates to a permanent position is pretty rare. But to also have my wife find a position on the same forest with a very similar career path is astonishing. I feel truly blessed I found the MAI AmeriCorps VetsWork GreenCorps program that gave the opportunity for me and my family to pursue a career that truly fits us.