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Honoring Veterans 2016: Robert McDonald

robert-mcdonald

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.

A teammate at work on a thinning project

A teammate at work on a thinning project

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.

The results of a day-long burnout operation on the Rail Fire

The results of a day-long burnout operation on the Rail Fire

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.

The 2016 VetsWork GreenCorps crew.

The 2016 VetsWork GreenCorps crew.

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.

Honoring Veterans 2016: Mary Dawn Kidd

 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 Conservation Legacy –
A Podcast Interview with Mary Dawn Kidd, Southwest Conservation Corps, Veterans Fire Corps 

Honoring Veterans 2016: Darrin Grant

darrin-grant

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 – “Fire Fever”

Darrin Grant joined the Army in 1994 as a Watercraft Engineer (88L). His three year enlistment turned into a 20 year career. Here are his thoughts on his VetsWork AmeriCorps internship in his position as a Natural Resources Management Intern on the Monongahela National Forest:

There is something that calls to the men and women who have served their country in the Armed Forces.  It quietly gnaws at them from somewhere down deep where they can never quite understand it. I think the military is the single biggest paradox in the world.  When you’re in most of the time you want out and when you finally get out for some inescapable reason you want back in; or at some level of the human psyche you think you do.

I think that for a lot of veterans like myself there will never be another real job.  I think that it’s important to note that I actually have a real job right now. What I mean is this; after being in charge of millions of dollars of equipment and squads or even platoons of personnel the prospect of a conventional 9-5 job does not sit well with most veterans.  Additionally, some lack skill sets and experience required for the career path they may want to cross over to.  For myself it was never a question of finding another career; it was finding something that I love doing again. There is a huge gap that appears when you transition out of the military and generally speaking the longer the enlistment time the more deployments and therefore the larger the gap.  Unfortunately most of the veterans I know are people in that gap.  The key is finding something to fill the gap that has similar experiences with the military and that you will enjoy.

Me and the crew taking a quick break.

Me and the crew taking a quick break.

As part of my VetsWork AmeriCorps internship that is operated by the Mt. Adams Institute, I was fortunate enough to become Red Card certified and sent out west with a wildland firefighting crew.  While in Wyoming our crew was able to help contain two different fires. When I got to my first fire everything just sort of clicked, like I was supposed to be doing this and nothing else.  Part of the reason I felt so at home is there are a lot of similarities between wildland firefighting and the military. Too many to mention, really.  However one is significant to me: in the beginning of the Incident Response Planning Guide (IRPG), which is like the wildland firefighter’s bible, on page V you will find the Army’s 11 Leadership Principals almost word for word.  I guess they figured since they have been around since 1948 they wouldn’t change them!

Being on a fire for 14 days pulling 16 hour shifts and sleeping in your tent is like this bizarre but mostly great combination of Basic Training, prison camp, and a resort in the Rockies.  In basic training you meet a bunch of guys you don’t know, eat MRE’s, tell a lot of bad jokes and fart whenever you want.  However by the end of it you all survived and bonded and it really developed you for the better as a person.  Alright, so obviously I’ve never been to a prison camp…however at times (mostly cold trailing) fire was a toilsome task. Sometimes it was just downright punishing due to the sun and the smoke or just the grade of the slope we were actually standing and working on. However in fire just like anything else there is down time and for all that hard work there is rest. The money is better than prison camp too.  Lastly, if you are lucky enough to land on a large fire as we did for our last 9 days out you will have a catering service, supply tent and hot showers; all the comforts of home. Not to mention we were looking at the snowcapped peaks of Yellowstone National Park!

Remember how no matter what happens in your life you will always remember your Basic Training? Wildland firefighting has that same effect.  No matter what, you will always remember the sound of the crackle and the smells…you will always remember your first fire.  To the members of the CAC-1 Crew out of West Virginia if you are reading this I hope you enjoyed the post and THANK YOU!  Especially to Bravo Squad and the crew Bosses who shared both nuggets of wisdom and tidbits of ridiculousness, not necessarily in that order.  So here’s to always having a “Pirate Tuesday” and may none of us ever have to grid three miles of desert sage again!

The CAC-1 crew out of West Virginia

The CAC-1 crew out of West Virginia

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #12 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

August 31st – REASON #21 to Support the 21CSC: Service in a Corps is a transformative experience.

Research shows that, after a term of service in a 21CSC program, youth report feeling they have better communication and critical thinking skills. They also experience growth in their commitment to community engagement and environmental conservation. But the research only says so much. Here are just a few quotes from young people whose lives were transformed by service in 21CSC programs:

Angela Noah – Northwest Youth Corps, Native American Conservation Corps
“Participation for five weeks on a youth crew and eight weeks on an adult crew has helped me to hone my leadership skills. Before the Corps, I was quiet and afraid that I would never amount to someone important. Throughout my childhood, my elders taught me to believe that education and experience were the only paths a Native American should take. I have found this to be true. When I joined the Corps, I was terrified because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into…During the youth session, I had my first experience of a backcountry project along the Rogue River in Oregon. We were assigned a twenty-two-mile trail maintenance project to be completed in one week. With sixty pounds on my back, raw blisters on my feet, and four days without a shower, I remember nearing our twenty-two-mile mark…I remember tears, and hugging the crew that became family. It was that moment that I realized I could do anything I set my mind to. I unleashed my full potential, saw hope for the future, and declared clarity in my mind and soul. All that I have gained from working in the woods has given me the courage to love and forgive. I no longer pity myself. Instead, I took charge and set out on a journey to inspire others that anything is possible.

 

Jeremiah Ruiz – Urban Corps of San Diego County
…I look back at how much I’ve grown as a person, from dealing with weight and sexuality issues, to being in dark places where I saw no future or life for myself. To now, where I am healthier physically and mentally. My family are all very proud of how far I’ve come as an individual. The future and its possibilities seem limitless. I’d like to thank Urban Corps, and The Corps Network for these kinds of programs because I truly feel they help our Country, not just by conservation efforts but also by helping America’s Youth become responsible and successful citizens of the United States.”

 

Graciela Billingsley – Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Colorado
“My experience with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps taught me to be patient, to laugh at things, especially when things go completely opposite of how I thought they would go, to work hard and to treat the environment and myself in the best way. I learned about the amazing beauty and stillness of nature, and the physical work it takes to preserve such wonder. I learned the value of preservation and trail work needed to protect the environment that offers us so much. I pushed myself farther than I thought I could ever go. Through this environmental and team service work, I, like many in my crew, found myself.

 

Mike Bremer – Southwest Conservation Corps, Veterans Fire Crew
“As a veteran, I have faced many obstacles and challenges. When I was discharged from the Army, I struggled to find meaningful employment. I held several jobs – car salesman, machinist, aviation fueler, repairman, painter…just to name a few – and none of these were very fulfilling. They didn’t give me the same thrill, rush and sense of purpose that combat missions gave me. After five years with little and sporadic employment I needed to find a new job, and I came across an advertisement for the Veterans Fire Crew with the Southwest Conservation Corps… I spent a year working with the Veterans crew and got to know an amazing group of vets. Through this program, my fellow veterans and I got excellent training in wildland fire behavior, with an emphasis on fuels reduction work. I’ve finally found a career – and a purpose – that compares to the Army. This is a job of service, hard and dirty work, and brotherhood. I hope more veterans can benefit from programs like the Veterans Fire Corps like I did.

 

Jon Brito – Kupu
“Overall, I recommend to anyone that will listen to check out Kupu or other Corps programs. I discovered more about myself and the place that I call home than I honestly thought possible. To know that I made a difference in the environment, my local community, in the lives of others, and for myself, really speaks volumes about how important these types of programs are.

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #11 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

August 24th – REASON #11 to Support the 21CSC: We need to train a new generation to take care of our National Parks for the next 100 years.

The National Park Service turns 100 this week! This is certainly a cause for celebration, but, as the agency recognizes this milestone and looks to the future, they acknowledge that work needs to be done to address the maintenance backlog and attract a younger, more diverse generation of park visitors. To put it in numbers, NPS has a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, and only 22% of park visitors are people of color.

The programs of the 21CSC can help parks address both of these issues. As for the backlog, Corps offer the Park Service a cost-effective means to complete maintenance projects. Studies show that NPS can save an average of 65% on project costs by partnering with Corps.

The 21CSC also helps engage an increasingly diverse, urbanized American population in conservation and outdoor recreation. Corps operate crews in nearly every state, teaching conservation-related job skills to local youth in cities, small towns and everywhere in between. While the census bureau projects that the American population will be majority non-white by 2044, Corps enrollees are already majority non-white. It is imperative to the sustainability of our parks and other natural spaces that diverse youth from rural areas, as well as urban areas, feel a sense of responsibility for their protection.

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #10 to Support the 21CSC

Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

August 17th – REASON #10 to Support the 21CSC: All young people who want to serve on our public lands should be able to.

The unfortunate truth is that not all young people who want to serve our country through a Corps have the opportunity to do so. In recent years, AmeriCorps – the national service program that supports many service positions in Corps – had to reject some 86 percent of applicants; there simply aren’t enough service positions to meet demand.

One way the 21CSC initiative helps increase the number of available service positions on public lands is by working to raise non-federal funding support for 21CSC projects. To date, companies, foundations and individuals have donated millions to the 21CSC. For example, private funding matched with AmeriCorps dollars is currently supporting 21CSC Corpsmembers serving on comprehensive trail restoration projects at Olympic and Mt. Rainier National Parks.

Additionally, the 21CSC advocates to expand the number of federal agencies that can partner with Corps to complete mission-critical projects. More projects for Corps means more opportunities in which Corps can engage young people in meaningful service to our country.

If you want to serve in a Corps and improve public lands, you should have the opportunity to do so.

 

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #9 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

August 10th – REASON #9 to Support the 21CSC: This isn’t a new idea. Corps have a long history – we know they work.  

Conservation Corps are not a “new idea” – they’ve been around for over 80 years. In 2016, two members of the 21CSC – LA Conservation Corps and California Conservation Corps – are respectively celebrating their 30th and 40th anniversaries. Next year, another member of the 21CSC – the Student Conservation Association – will celebrate it’s 60th anniversary! Corps have proven to be invaluable partners of America’s resource management agencies. Earlier this summer, the National Park Service testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands on behalf of the 21CSC Act; after decades of successful partnerships with Corps, our federal resource management agencies know that expanded Corps operations would be a good thing for America’s parks and other natural spaces.

In the above picture, a Student Conservation Association crew in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 1973.

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #8 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

August 3rd – REASON #8 to Support the 21CSC: Corps stimulate local economies.

21CSC programs help local economies in more ways than one. First, participants in Corps are paid for their service; they usually receive a stipend or living allowance. It’s not much, but for many Corpsmembers this is their first experience earning money and learning how to budget and spend responsibly.

Second, Corpsmembers gain hands-on job experience by participating in service projects and often earn professional certifications that correspond with the required work for these projects. Additionally, the crew dynamics help Corpsmembers develop vital soft skills in communication, leadership and problem solving. Alumni of 21CSC programs are poised for success in the work world.

Third, some Corps operate AmeriCorps programs and give their Corpsmembers the opportunity to earn AmeriCorps Education Awards upon completion of their service. These scholarships support Corps alumni in the pursuit of further education and training.

Fourth, the service projects Corps complete are important to the wellness of local communities. It’s estimated that every dollar invested in national service programs returns nearly four dollars in benefits to society. Many of the projects 21CSC programs perform help protect, restore and improve America’s public lands and waters. Our parks, rivers, lakes and forests support a $646 billion outdoor economy. 21CSC programs help ensure that these public spaces remain safe and accessible for our enjoyment. Not to mention, 21CSC programs create many new participants in the outdoor economy. Studies show that Corps alumni believe they are significantly more likely to participate in outdoor recreational activities as a result of their Corps experience. Public lands Corps participants reported that they intended to spend 123% (or 2 ¼ times) more on outdoor recreational gear and apparel than members of a comparison group.

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #7 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

July 27th – REASON #7 to Support the 21CSC: “…you don’t have to wear a military uniform to serve your country.”

National service has the power to bring people together. Young adults who serve in 21CSC programs develop a sense of civic responsibility and learn how to work with people who are different from themselves. Research shows that young adults who complete a term of service in a public lands Corps experience significant growth in their interest in community engagement. They also become much more confident in their teamwork and communication abilities.

General Stanley McChrystal said it best in an op-ed recently published in The Atlantic:

Young Americans could be paid a modest living stipend, work in teams, and build relationships with one another by solving problems together. Beyond the valuable work they would do to improve their country, young Americans would develop the powerful habits of citizenship as well as the leadership and professional skills that help them grow and stand out with their future employers.

In my 34 years in the military, I saw young men and women work with people of different backgrounds, learn the values of teamwork and discipline, rise to common challenges, and discover they were leaders. I’ve also seen firsthand that service ethic in community-based nonprofits like City Year, Teach for America, YouthBuild, Green City Force*, Earth Conservation Corps*, and other AmeriCorps programs. It is clear to me that you don’t have to wear a military uniform to serve your country.

*21CSC program

Summer 2016 Meme Series: Reason #6 to Support the 21CSC

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Summer 2016 Series: Why You Should Support the #21CSC

Every Wednesday between June 15th and August 31st, we’ll release a new shareable image depicting a reason why it’s important to support the 21CSC initiative. Post these images on your social channels to let people know why the 21CSC is a good idea.   

July 20th – REASON #6 to Support the 21CSC: The 21CSC Act is bipartisan and budget neutral

The 21CSC Act is something both sides of the aisle can agree upon. The legislation was introduced in the House and Senate by bipartisan coalitions. The 21CSC initiative also has the support of the four most recent Secretaries of the Interior, including two Republicans and two Democrats.

Because the 21CSC Act requires that federal agencies only use existing funding streams to partner with Corps, the 21CSC won’t affect the government’s budget. In fact, studies have demonstrated that federal agencies like the National Park Service can save 50 percent or more on project costs by partnering with Corps.  There isn’t much to disagree over: the 21CSC improves public lands and provides opportunities to youth and veterans without costing the government any additional money. We invite members of Congress to visit the 21CSC programs in their states to see firsthand what Corps can accomplish.

Thank you to the members of Congress who introduced or have cosponsored the 21CSC Act:

Senate – S. 1993:

  • Introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)

House of Representatives – H.R. 5114

  • Introduced by Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA)
  • Original cosponsors: Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA)
  • Cosponsors: Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA)