SANTA FE (AP) – Several New Mexico military veterans are back on the field, but the only enemy they are fighting is fire.
Twenty-five veterans have trained to help battle wildfires through the state’s Returning Heroes program. For many, being out in the wilderness is a lot more comfortable than cubicle culture.
For Greg Hesch, a Santa Fe native and U.S. Air Force veteran, working in the outdoors is a better fit for former servicemen like himself.
“It has a natural appeal to most military veterans as opposed to making parts in a factory or in office,” Hesch, 53, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The veterans have learned new skills while also working on prescribed burns and forest-thinning projects. They can do a range of tasks from using a chain saw to serving as part of an incident command system at a disaster site. The vets are familiar with being part of a structured crew.
“A great brotherhood and sisterhood exist in the firefighting community,” Hesch said. “That’s similar to the military. We take care of our own.”
Participants from Returning Heroes are contributing to the protection of the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed from potential fire by thinning trees in Hyde Memorial State Park. Lindsey Quam, the Returning Heroes program manager, said the veterans also learn about forest ecology and how their efforts will help slow fires down.
Now in its first full year of operation, the State Forestry Division’s program was established in 2013 to help get vets back to work. Gov. Susana Martinez has been an avid supporter since its inception. She and lawmakers approved more than $1.8 million in funding to maintain the program for two years.
The state says it is seeking other partnerships to find work for 4,000 unemployed veterans. Alan Martinez, deputy Cabinet secretary for the state Department of Veterans’ Services, said 150 veterans have gotten job training or been hired in the last two years because of joint efforts with the state mining association, the film industry and law enforcement. The federal government covers half the salary for veterans’ on-the-job training.