The Veterans Conservation Corps, a state-financed program, is helping veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan tackle two big challenges of civilian life — finding new employment and coping with psychic battle scars. The focus is on outdoor jobs in forestry, wildlife management and other natural-resource fields.
COVINGTON — At a subdivision in Southeast King County, nine people wield shovels, picks and machetes to hack down blackberry thickets that have overgrown a tiny wetland.
Hour by hour, they clear more of the brambles, revealing cedar and other native plants that had been enveloped by the thorny bushes.
Every person on this crew is a military veteran, most of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan. All are hoping to forge new careers through the Veterans Conservation Corps, a state-financed program that helps them tackle two big challenges of civilian life — finding new employment and coping with the psychic battle scars of war.
The focus is on outdoor jobs in forestry, wildlife management and other natural-resource fields that can put the veterans outside, where it’s hoped they can tap some of the healing powers of nature. The veterans combine classroom work at community colleges with weekly forays to restore waterways, monitor pollution and tackle other tasks.
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On this day, they are laboring at one of many small wetlands created by developers to compensate for marshland filled in for housing. Most of these spots are overgrown with blackberries and other invasive species, and the restoration work is tough labor that often leaves scratched-up arms.
“It’s been like a breath of fresh air,” said Jeremy Grisham, the leader of the crew. “When I first got back, I couldn’t find work and gained so much weight. When I started getting outside, it was the first time I felt good about things.”
Grisham was a Navy medic who took part in the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. One of his most harrowing tasks was helping civilians suffering from burns and wounds. As Grisham was medically retired in 2005, he was diagnosed with a disabling case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Grisham is now in his second year in the conservation corps, taking classes and field work at Green River Community College, which offers a two-year degree in natural-resources management. He is one of about 70 Washington veterans who have been able to attend Green River and four other community colleges around the state with the help of the conservation corps, which pays $1,000 per month in living expenses.
But the stipend money from the state runs out in May. For the next school year, the corps will help students find part-time jobs or gain access to new federal funding, said Mark Fischer, the program director.
In addition to the training, the corps has been involved in recruiting some 600 veterans for volunteer work and restoration projects around the state.
The corps, which has received $1.5 million in state funding in recent years, is part of a broader national movement to find green jobs for young veterans. That effort has gained new urgency in this year’s recession; the unemployment rate for young veterans climbed to 11.3 percent in February, compared with 8.8 percent for other workers in the same age group, according to a federal Labor Department survey.
“Good days and bad”
Even when the economy was better, it often was difficult for new veterans to make the transition to civilian life.
Chris Sweet, a 28-year-old native of Connecticut, first left the Army in 2005 and ended up back home with a dead-end job bagging groceries. Saddled by debt, he re-enlisted and served a 15-month extended tour of duty with a Fort Lewis-based Stryker Brigade before being discharged a second time in 2008.
Sweet opted to stay in Washington, joining the corps and taking classes at Green River. He hopes a two-year degree will land him a job with a fish and wildlife agency.
Sweet says he has been diagnosed with PTSD and also is scheduled to be tested for a traumatic brain injury that could have occurred as he was slammed against the periscope inside an eight-wheeled Stryker vehicle.
“I have my good days and bad days,” Sweet said. “I get ringing in my ears, and memory is a huge issue.”
“I can definitely tell you what happened in Iraq. It’s a huge part of my life. But sometimes I can’t tell you what happened to me this past week or even this morning.”
John Shore, another veteran of a Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade, said he wants to get involved in game management — shooting geese, hunting down feral pigs or other efforts to keep animals in check. He might stay in Washington, or search for work elsewhere.
“There’s a whole world out there, ” Shore said. “Plenty of places I haven’t been yet.”
Vietnam vet gave push
The conservation corps was inspired by the late John Beal, a Vietnam veteran from Seattle who credited his own salvation from PTSD to a 28-year effort to revive Hamm Creek and other neglected stretches of the Duwamish Waterway.
Beal talked with state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle; Tom Schumacher, a state Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD specialist; and others about creating a new veterans corps. The brainstorming turned into a bill that Beal helped push through the Legislature.
“When I came back from Vietnam, I was a wreck. I was completely broken and didn’t know what to do or where to go, ” Beal testified before the state Senate Resources Committee in 2005.
“I know that there are veterans right now who today have those same problems. … I think this is an opportunity for the state of Washington to start a project that will, I think, be a model for the United States.”
Beal died in 2006 just as the conservation corps was getting launched.
On Saturday, in a prelude to Earth Day, a corps crew met at Hamm Creek, along the Duwamish Waterway. There, they cleared weeds, put native plants in the ground and spread mulch in honor of Beal.
Long-term study needed
Plenty of people share Beal’s belief that outdoors work can help veterans rebuild their lives. One of them is Chris Belliotti, a California psychologist who, while on fellowship with the Department of Veterans Affairs, decided to study the veterans in the conservation corps.
She gave a battery of tests to 17 of the veterans at the beginning, middle and end of 10 months of classes last year at Green River Community College. She found no significant improvements in depression, anxiety or PTSD. But she did find improvements in social function and the ability to perform daily tasks.
“There is a need for more long-term studies,” Belliotti said. “I view this as sort of like a snapshot to see if we are going to get anything right off the bat.”
Grisham was one of the participants in the study. Recently divorced, he says there are still plenty of bad days when it’s hard for him to get out of bed. And he isn’t sure whether he will be able to hold down a full-time job.
But Grisham plans to stay involved with the conservation corps and restoration work.
“I’ll do this as long as they will have me,” Grisham says. “Even if I have to volunteer the whole time.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org