Soldiers in forestry program gain after-service job skills

Sally Gorrill’s career as an engineer in the US Army has taken her to such places as Panama and the Dominican Republic, where she’s built medical clinics. Now, she’s interested in applying her skills toward a new field: forestry.

Gorrill, 30, a captain who’s spent seven years in the Army, is part of a new summer internship program for soldiers through the Veterans Conservation Corps in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. She’s getting training in land management skills as she prepares to transition out of the service.

“It’s the closest I’ve been to home in about 12 years, so it feels great to be back,” said Gorrill, of Gray, Maine, who wants to spend her future outdoors.

So far, she and two other veterans in the program have learned how to maintain trails, keep away bears, and fight forest fires. She’ll also be learning about hydrology, wildlife biology, law enforcement, and other facets of the US Forest Service, which partnered with the Department of Defense on the project.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Organizers hope the fledgling program will provide a model that can be applied nationally to assist more soldiers interested in land management.

Forest Ranger Jim Innes said the Forest Service nationwide is experiencing a lot of attrition through retirement. He said the agency has hired military veterans, who bring strong skills to the Forest Service.

“They bring a completely different way of looking at things to the agency,” he said. “There’s a huge benefit; we learn a lot from them, they learn a lot from us.”

Gorrill said some techniques used to fight wildfires are similar to ones learned in the military. “From my experience, having dealt with construction equipment, it’s probably the most direct translation, because digging trenches is something I’m used to,” she said.

White Mountain National Forest. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

White Mountain National Forest. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

One challenge for program organizers was providing lodging for the soldiers in the forest. They ended up renovating an old Civilian Conservation Corps-era structure known as “The Lodge” in the Bartlett Experimental Forest, a field laboratory for research on the ecology and management of northern hardwoods and associated ecosystems. The building hadn’t been used for about 10 years. The Forest Service received funding from businesses and volunteer help to install kitchen cabinets and handle electrical and plumbing work. Innes hopes it can be winterized so that program can run year-round.

The soldiers also will be getting help with resume writing and interview skills, as forest officials try to help place them in jobs.

Another participant, Terry Asbridge, 37, of Horseheads, New York, is getting ready to retire from the Army. He has completed 20 years, much of it in recruitment. His goal is to be a district park ranger, but he also can see himself working in firefighting, development or recreation in the forest.

“One of my passions is land management and wildlife management,” he said. “I can put this on my resume and apply for positions with the US Forest Service.”

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