Armed simply with chainsaws, a corps of military veterans has arrived on the Jersey Shore to help Sandy-stricken residents trapped by a maze of downed trees and debris.
The team members, whose previous tours have included Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, arrived in New Jersey this week from Arizona, where they were serving in the Student Conservation Association (SCA) Veterans Fire Corps, a program that helps recent-era vets transition to civilian life and prepares them for careers in conservation. Their recent training in chain saw operation and wildland firefighting made them perfectly suited for the mission at hand.
"We volunteered right away," says Joseph LiCausi, a former Navy petty officer from Queens, New York. "Cleaning up roads, getting trees out of the way, helping displaced people get food. It feels good to help out."
The SCA Veterans Fire Corps is part of a 20-person U.S. Forest Service saw crew currently stationed at Fort Dix. Last week, the SCA team was cutting down Ponderosa pines in Coconino National Forest to eliminate potential fire fuels. Now they are clearing felled trees from Jersey streets to provide access for responders and enable vital supplies of water, food, and fuel to reach those most in need.
Former Marine Sergeant Alleyn Friedrich started thinking about a forestry career while reading Nevada Barr's national park mystery novels. But now he's focused only on those in Sandy's destructive wake. "We're here to help people who have been hurt," he says. "Make their lives a little better, a little closer to normal."
Following Hurricane Sandy and Wednesday's Nor'easter, Corps members may also assist Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) logistics facilities, local emergency response agencies, and community command and control efforts.
SCA and the Forest Service launched the Veterans Fire Corps in the summer of 2011 as a pilot program. Since then, more than 30 veterans from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy have served on wildfire mitigation teams in Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott National Forests in Arizona and Black Hills National Forest in North Dakota. Nine corps alumni have advanced to employment with the Forest Service or other resource management offices and 20 have returned to school to obtain degrees in environmental studies.
"Very quickly, this program has proven to be beneficial to both our forests and our veterans although, characteristically, these vets are less concerned about themselves," says Kevin Hamilton, SCA vice president for communications. "They're here to support the people and communities affected by these storms."
Fire Corps members are trained and/or certified in Chain Saw Operation, Fire Ecology, Wildland Fire Fighting (Red Card), and Wilderness First Aid, in addition to general conservation skills, environmental education, and the Forest Service's history and hiring procedures. They receive a subsistence living allowance, medical coverage, housing, expense paid travel, and may choose to enroll in the AmeriCorps Education Award Program to receive assistance for college tuition or existing student loans.
The Corps' conservation objectives include improving ecosystem health, rangeland conditions and wildlife habitat, as well as reducing the threat and adverse effects of wildland fire. At the same time, it provides recent-era (post-9/11) veterans with the training, credentials and experience needed to competitively pursue wildland fire and/or forestry careers. The program also helps federal land management agencies meet the 2009 Presidential Executive Order that directs agencies to assist veterans in securing employment and helping with their re-entry into civilian life.
The Student Conservation Association (SCA) is dedicated to building the next generation of conservation leaders by providing high school and college students, young military veterans and others with conservation service opportunities in all 50 states, from urban communities to national parks and forests. Since 1957, SCA's hands-on practice of conservation service has inspired lifelong stewardship and sustainability among more than 70,000 participants. SCA is a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. and maintains regional offices in Boise, ID, Charlestown, NH, Oakland, CA, Pittsburgh, PA, and Seattle, WA. For more, logon at http://www.thesca.org.
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