HUNGRY HORSE – The two military-like vehicles twisted through the parking lot before coming to a stop. The back doors swung open and the warriors emerged from within.
A few years ago, these soldiers may have entered a war zone, but today they’re met with lush green mountains against a crystal clear blue sky. They spent five days on the front lines of the 70,000-acre Bear Creek Fire deep in the Flathead National Forest, and now this group of veteran firefighters was preparing to return home to New Mexico.
Three years ago, the New Mexico State Forestry Division created the Returning Heroes Wildland Firefighting Program to help retrain military veterans to become firefighters. The pilot program was so successful that New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez chose to fully fund it in 2014, and this year more than 60 veterans, many who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, are part of the firefighting crew.
Crew boss David Sanchez said the program teaches veterans how to use chainsaws, fell trees and how to dig fire line, among other skills. For firefighters like Pablo Lujan, a 34-year-old Navy veteran, the program is a blessing. Before joining the crew, Lujan performed odd jobs installing car stereos or working at call centers. He said there wasn’t much work stateside for someone who specialized in building bombs.
“Getting a job was tough when I came home because no one needed someone to blow stuff up,” he said, laughing. “What I found out when I came home is that I didn’t have a lot of skills applicable to a job here at home, but this program is giving me a new opportunity.”
Like Lujan, M.J. Townsend, another Navy veteran, said the program has taught him skills he can apply to a future job, including one in the timber industry. Before joining the crew last year, he didn’t know how to properly drop a tree.
There are other benefits as well, said Tessa Filip, a U.S. Army veteran on crew for three years. She joined because her parents both fought wildfires when they were younger and she loves the outdoors.
Being a part of the fire crew has also allowed them the opportunity to travel and see parts of the American West they might not have otherwise visited. Just this summer, Sanchez’s crew (there are currently three Returning Heroes crews) has been deployed to Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Montana.
“When the smoke clears, there has been some amazing views,” Wayne Tenorio said about the Montana terrain.
Filip recalled her assignment on a fire in northern California last summer. She said waking up near Yosemite National Park each day was a perk that never got old.
Everyone agreed that the best part of the vet crew is the camaraderie. Tenorio said it’s often hard for non-service members to understand what soldiers have seen overseas.
“Hanging out with people who have gone through the same experiences as you and seen the same things is great,” he said. “It’s good to be with my own people.”
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