by Patrick Lohmann
Albuquerque Journal – Forty military veterans gathered in the Bernalillo bosque Friday for their first field training to become part of the forestfirefighting force tasked with battling what could be a devastating summer fire season.
The veterans, many of whom were unemployed, got the $17.40-an-hour jobs through a program created in collaboration with New Mexico State Forestry, the state Department of Veterans’ Services and the New Mexico Workforce Connections.
Gov. Susana Martinez was at the bosque talking to veterans and learning how to shoot the high-pressure hose that firefighters use in battling blazes. Martinez said veterans are uniquely qualified to fight fires because of their teamwork and leadership abilities.
“One of the worst things you can have is a veteran in the unemployment line after they’ve served their country,” Martinez said Friday afternoon in Bernalillo along U.S. 550. “… To have more hands ready, to have more boots on the ground, it makes us feel much safer.”
The 40 veterans join 250 civilian forest firefighters gearing up for the upcoming fire season, which comes after years of intense drought and back-to-back record-setting forest fires in the north and south halves of the state.
From a straw poll of a dozen newly hired veterans, six said they were unemployed before being hired for the program. Veterans generally are unemployed at a rate 2 percent higher than that of the general population, according to a representative from Workforce Connections.
Dametre Macon, an Iraq veteran who came back to New Mexico in 2004, said she’d been unemployed since 2009 except for a seasonal job with the U.S. Postal Service. She said having a job is great, but having a job that matters is even better.
“If you’re a soldier, you’re looking for that kind of job that carries a lot of honor and respect,” Macon said. “I think that’s important for these soldiers – to matter like that again.”
Macon said she’d be interested in fighting forest fires as a career, and Workforce Connections hopes to find veterans jobs that last more than a fire season. The veterans will be paid this season only as they’re needed. Also, once the fire season ends in New Mexico, the veterans will also be sent to other states that are on fire.
Dan Ware, a spokesman for New Mexico State Forestry, praised the veterans for their dedication and cohesion, and he said the potential risk of injury and death on the forest fire front lines makes their commitment even more admirable.
“We owe them a debt already for their service to the country,” Ware said. “And now they’re putting their lives on the line again potentially for our state.”