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Restoring the Earth helps veterans heal

  • Story Highlights
  • "Green" jobs program helps military veterans learn marketable skills
  • Program not only helps the environment, veterans say -- it aids them, too
  • Veterans almost immediately form "new platoon" to support one another
  • Program's success does not make it immune to budget cuts
By Patrick Oppmann
CNN
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AUBURN, Washington (CNN) -- For veteran Jeremy Grisham, clearing heavy brush with an ax in the woods near Seattle is a way to "work out demons."

A veteran takes a break during a project. A VCC manager says: "The veterans heal nature and nature heals them."

Veteran Kyle Lemieux swings an axe as works on a project in the woods of Washington state.

Like many other vets returning from deployment overseas, Grisham, a medical corpsman, came back from Iraq seared by memories of war and unsure about how to re-enter civilian life.

But a program in Washington state helps military veterans learn marketable job skills and make sense of their experiences in combat. Program managers say the Veterans Conservation Corps initiative helps hundreds of vets study and train to enter the growing "green" jobs field.

In return, the veterans work on projects that help restore the environment in state parks.

The VCC, though, is much more than job training for Grisham and many of the other vets. It's a form of therapy.

"Sometimes it feels really good. When we take invasive weeds off a tree that's being suffocated and we free something. I feel a bit lighter inside," Grisham says.

He says he thinks about his experiences in Iraq every day but years later is still not able to freely discuss the details.

"There's a few things I regret deeply. I can't make it different, I can't change what happened, but it gives me a way to make some small steps to make a difference."

Finding a way to make that difference is crucial to veterans who have recently left the military, says VCC program manager Mark Fischer.

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The program gets "younger veterans involved so that they have a new mission when they come back from overseas. A lot of them get lost in a variety of problems, and we wanted to capture as many of them as possible -- get them involved in something meaningful," Fischer adds. "Outdoor work is healing." Video Watch veterans talk about their healing journey »

Before helping the vets with training for new careers in green job fields, Fischer spent 15 years counseling veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he "burned out" doing that work, but the experience instilled in him the need to make sure that veterans returning from war are given assistance to readjust.

Vets who contact the VCC are helped by its small staff to enroll in a local community college and become part of a network of recently returned vets and older veterans who volunteer on the community projects. Fischer says the vets -- most of who have never met before the program -- almost immediately form "a new platoon" to support one another.

Graduates from the program, Fischer says, have gone on to work for the state division of forestry, the park system, and have created their own companies working on environmental projects.

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But the program's success does not make it immune to cuts in a state with an $8 billion deficit. The VCC recently lost $1 million in funding that had gone toward giving a $1,000-a-month stipend to veterans taking classes. Fischer is trying to find the vets part-time jobs while they study and hopes federal money from the GI Bill can make up the difference for some of them.

One of the vets losing the stipend is Kyle Lemieux. He says that despite the loss of assistance, he will find a way to continue studying. He adds that the VCC has given him purpose following his military service.

Lemieux joined the Army after 9/11 and served two tours in Iraq. His second deployment was cut short with the drawdown of troops from the country, and he found himself back home earlier than expected, unsure of what life would mean after the military.

"Coming back after a long deployment -- it was hard," he says during a break while working on a project to clean up discarded TV sets, blown tires and other garbage along a road near a state park. "I'm back, I'm getting out soon, what am I going to do? Am I going to get a steady job, go to college?"

He and other soldiers in his position, Lemieux says, found it tough to compete for scarce jobs against people who were busy building resumes while they were in the military. Many of those soldiers quit the job search in frustration and re-enlisted; Lemieux found the VCC. After graduation, he hopes to work as a forestry engineer, studying the effects of industrialization on nature.

On a recent project, the vets took axes and chainsaws to about half a dozen felled Douglas Fir trees. In two hours, they transformed the huge downed trees into firewood, which their school, Green River Community College, can sell to fund programs for students.

In between the hard labor, they share Iraq stories and jokes. For John Shore, who served two tours in Iraq as a sniper, the company of other veterans is a reassurance.

"It's a real culture shock between military life and civilian life. It's easier to interact and just be with other people who still think the same way you do and understand," Shore explains. "When you are around other military, they understand."

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Despite their service and the cost they paid and continue to pay, Shore says none of the vets expect special treatment.

"I have reached the point where I am not really looking for recognition," Shore says. "I just want to fit in the middle somewhere."

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