Lighting up opportunity

Buffalo Bulletin
Thursday, September 12, 2013

Veterans Fire Corps Opens New Career Options to Vets

When Joe Svidron’s days as an active member of the U.S. Marine Corps ended and his time as a park management major began, the transition was anything but smooth. After four years in the military, college was like a foreign land, full of younger students whose world of fashion and fads was nothing like the one Svidron left when he enlisted, and military discipline had nothing in common with college life.

“Going back to school wasn’t so great, and it was hard to acclimate because everybody’s five, six, seven years younger than you,” Svidron said. “The things they’re doing now you had no clue were going on when you were in the military, so it’s kind of foreign to you. You’re looking for that camaraderie and that sense of purpose and accomplishment again, and it’s not really there in the civilian sector.”

A smoother mode of re-entry

All that changed when Svidron stumbled across an advertisement for the Student Conservation Association Veterans Fire Corps, a 90-day program that partners with the U.S. Forest Service to give military veterans the chance to explore conservation-related careers while providing a semi-structured transition back to civilian life.

“The VFC, they offer us a chance to get back into that (civilian) lifestyle but not headfirst,” Svidron said. “They allow you to dip your toe in there.”

The program fulfills Svidron’s internship requirement for his degree, but for him and the other five men on his Buffalo-based crew, it’s more than just a job.

“You’re showing up again. You’re getting a uniform. You’re part of a team again, and you’re doing stuff that’s productive,” said Mike Madalena, the crew’s leader and an evangelist for the program since his first encounter with it in 2012. “You get that sense of importance again.”

After a two-week training session in the Black Hills with the other six SCA veterans’ fire crews in the Rocky Mountain Region, Madalena’s group headed to its station at Tyrell Work Center in the Bighorn National Forest. They’ve been spending their days clearing hazard trees from recreation areas, installing wooden fences and closing down undesignated campsites, among other tasks, but the crew is much more than just a supply of physical labor. If a fire breaks out in the Big Horns, they’ll be ready to fight it, and a rotation of “administratively determined assignments” gives each member seven days to shadow a worker in a career of their choice.