Maine Army National Guard member Dylan Cookson loves his job.
The 26-year-old Corinna native said he enjoys leading a tight-knit group of like-minded people as they work together to solve a problem or accomplish a mission that will make the world a better place.
He’s not talking about his career with the military, though.
It’s his time with the Maine Conservation Corps as a Veteran Community Leader, a program that hires military veterans to bring their unique skills to bear in cleaning up rivers, maintaining trails and building canoe launch sites in projects like the Penobscot River Restoration Project.
After a pilot VCL program last year was deemed a success, the corps is training a second batch of veterans to tackle fresh challenges this season. The program is funded with a three-year grant from Americorps that pays six veterans a year about $11,000 to put in 1,700 hours over a 10-month period.
The idea behind the program is to draw on the natural skills of the veterans, who differ from some of the college-age conservation corps workers, according to Krista Rogers, a program coordinator.
“They bring their teamwork skills,” Rogers said. “They already come in with those. Their leadership skills are exemplary.”
At the same time, the veterans, who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other issues related to their terms of military service, benefit from working in the woods alongside other veterans as they reintegrate into civilian life. Now, Cookson and his fellow veterans are undergoing a five-day-a-week training period, during which they learn everything from how to be an effective fundraiser, to chainsaw safety, to designing a trail.
Once they’re done training, a period that lasts several weeks, they’ll be deployed throughout the state, where they will lead groups of volunteers to tackle conservation projects.
Another VCL recruit, James Thomas, of Fairfield, said his own term of service was relatively soft — four years in the Marines, mostly training helicopter pilots in California, with a six-month stint in Okinawa during a time of peace in the 1980s. One of his most interesting professional experiences since serving in the Marines was in 1990, when he acted as a stand-in for Andrew Divoff during the shooting of “Graveyard Shift,” a movie based on a short story by Stephen King shooting in a handful of Maine locations, including Bangor.
There was a tense moment when he was on the set, and everyone realized that he didn’t match up with Divoff.
“The camera guy says Andy’s a little taller than you,” Thomas said. “They had me stand on my tiptoes.”
Now, he’s training to work on trails in the Mahoosuc Land Trust in the Bethel area.
The end game for the veterans in the program is often temporary employment in work they enjoy that could lead to future job opportunities in environmental or conservation fields.
Last year, the fire corps paid 278 veterans to construct fire breaks, create slash piles and to respond to active fires. After their time in the program, 229 of those went on to employment with government agencies tasked with protecting the environment, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s networking,” Thomas said. “You’re meeting a lot of people.”
The idea of putting warriors into the wilderness for the betterment of both is relatively new in Maine, but the trend has been building nationally for several years, according to William Doe, chief executive officer of Veterans Green Jobs, a Colorado-based organization that has connected hundreds of veterans with green jobs over the last several years.
“The key is that veterans are mission-oriented,” said Doe, who was born in Vermont and grew up in New Hampshire. “They like to work in teams. They have leadership skills. A lot of them like to be out of doors, doing things.”
The idea has caught on in a big way in the Southwest, where communities have been locked into a desperate battle against increasingly fierce wildfires.
“Wildfire fighting is pretty much a military operation,” Doe said. “Military folks are kind of a good fit, natural fit for that.”
One group, called the Veterans Fire Corps, was formed five years ago by the U.S. Department of the Interior, working with Doe’s organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2011, the Forest Service spent $1.5 million to expand the fire corps throughout out much of the West, in part to meet a federal order that directed agencies to help veterans re-enter civilian life and the workforce.
If conservation groups have their way, northeastern states such as Maine will soon have more robust programs, rivaling those in the Southwest.
“You know about the massive wildfires that have been going on here for years,” Doe said. “That was the impetus to get involved here. But it has definitely spread to other locations.”
One national group, the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, has been working toward a goal of engaging 100,000 young people and veterans in conservation service, a goal supported by 127 member groups from all 50 states.
But the member groups are a long way from that goal, working with about 27,000 people a year.
Doe said the group has a vision of bringing back some modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the popular Depression-era public work relief program that paid small wages to as many as 300,000 people a year to improve the land.
At first blush, military veterans and environmentalists might seem like they’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but that idea is fading fast in America, Doe said.
“Conservation of natural resources is mainstream,” Doe said.
Doe has seen the military undergo a seismic shift on environmental issues over the last 20 years, and it is now “a leader in alternative energies and conservation efforts among government agencies.”
“A lot of young soldiers are exposed to this,” Doe said. “Having been deployed to other countries and having seen the pollution and the destruction that takes place, I think they have come to appreciate the outdoors more.”
In Doe’s experience, many who serve in the military took their first shot with a hunting rifle in areas like rural Maine.
“Hunters were the first conservationists,” he said.
Cookson and Thomas both said that they hoped the experience they gain within the program will help them to transition into a professional career that keeps them working out-of-doors to improve the state’s natural resources.
Cookson said he can relate to his fellow VCLs in a way that he can’t always relate to civilians. For example, with the crew all living together during training, the coordinator would sometimes play the role of a drill sergeant, barking out orders and dishing out rapid-fire insults. It’s the type of horseplay that can bind a group together and let each member know he belongs.
Discussions among VCL participants sometimes turn more serious, Cookson said, as veterans talk about the stresses that they’re under, some personal and some related to their military service.
“It’s a great professional experience,” said Cookson. “You’re getting real skills that will get you further in life.”