Derrick Charpentier, Wildland Firefighter, Bureau of Land Management
Derrick Charpentier had been out of the U.S. Navy for seven years when he discovered he missed the camaraderie and work ethic of the military. He wanted to find a job that offered the sense of cohesion and public duty he felt in the Navy. He also felt a calling to engage in work that helps conserve our country’s natural environment.
So when he came upon Veterans Green Jobs, he knew he had found his niche.
Working in the Navy as an aviation structural mechanic for a helicopter squadron, Derrick’s nearly five-year military career took him to locations such as the Persian Gulf and South and Central America to support counter-drug and counter-terrorism missions. Leaving the military in 2002, Derrick returned to college for a mechanical engineering degree, then moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. His summer job as an underground locator – marking out power and transmission lines for construction companies – was not satisfying.
“I wanted to work with and for the environment. And I wanted to be around people who shared the same sense of commitment to getting the job done. In my experience, that’s been veterans,” says Derrick. He originally had his eye on installing solar panels and wind turbines. But the door that opened was much different.
A quick Internet search on “veteran jobs” and “veteran environmental jobs” led Derrick to Veterans Green Jobs. He soon found himself applying for a variety of training programs and was accepted in a conservation training cohort created through a partnership between Veterans Green Jobs and Durango-based Southwest Conservation Corps in 2009. The program empowers recently returning military veterans, typically aged 20-30 years old, to transition to civilian life. It does so by leveraging vets’ leadership experience in order to meet pressing conservation needs on public lands.
“I was a little taken aback on the first day. The other guys had already been out and working together for more than a month, so they knew exactly what their job was and what they needed to do. One guy showed me the ropes, and brought me into the fold very seamlessly. It was the military experience I was looking for, without the extreme confines and rigid structure of the military,” says Derrick.
For Derrick, the “big selling point” was the outdoor experience. “It’s nice to get away from email and TV for a few weeks and reconnect with the wilderness and nature. We live in the only world we’ll ever get; I’m more committed now than ever to getting the forest back to its natural pristine condition.”
Derrick first launched into trail operations on the Archuleta Trail in the wilderness of Rio Grande National Forest, followed by a week of chainsaw training at Ice Cave Ridge in San Juan National Forest. He received a number of certifications in just six months, including S-
212 Wildland Fire Chain Saw certification through Colorado Firecamp, and the S-130/S-190 wildland fire training required of all firefighters before they can work on the firelines. He was also trained in wilderness first aid and CPR. By his second session, Derrick had been trained as a crew leader.
Derrick’s experience paid off in ways he hadn’t imagined before. He was hired to join Dinosaur National Park’s Engine Crew for wildland firefighting on a seasonal basis, complementing his winter ski instructor job. Later he was hired by the Colorado Bureau of Land Management.
“I’m stoked. My experience with Veterans Green Jobs was invaluable. Without that training and experience, there’s no way I would have ever qualified for this job,” Derrick says, citing the requisite experience of being trained in chainsaw cutting in a professional setting.
Aside from giving him the skills he needed to look for a job in the natural resources field, Veterans Green Jobs provided a unique bonding opportunity that Derrick feels can’t be easily replicated: In the evenings after a hard day’s work, Derrick and his crewmates shared a community living experience, participating in the cooking and cleaning, then gathering around the camp fire. These were times when the vets shared their life experiences, reflected back on their time in the military, and talked about ways they could better assimilate back into mainstream society.
“But we wanted to do more than just assimilate. We wanted to bring back that warrior spirit we had from the military, and show people that we can all really make a positive difference in this world.”