Ray Curry comes to breakfast holding his head. He had a late night playing World of Warcraft, no doubt worsened by the relentless noises from the floor above his room. "I'm going to start a formal complaint about the bowling alley upstairs," he says, shuffling over to the egg buffet. "Those kids are just punching the floor." It's not easy living in migrant-worker housing in Center, Colo., a small agricultural town of 2,300. It beats the alternative, though, which until a few weeks ago was couch surfing, and before that, Marine barracks in Iraq.
Here, he shares a small room with a roommate. The walls are baby-blue, the linoleum is clean, and the view is more than decent -- the snowy Sangre de Cristo mountains rising up from the San Luis Valley's over-farmed high grassland. Curry, 24, is one of 15 men spending eight weeks here as part of the first training class of Veterans Green Jobs, a new Colorado-based nonprofit. Until they loaded onto a biodiesel bus in Denver a few weeks ago, four of the 15 were homeless.
Garrett Reppenhagen wipes the hot sauce off his trim beard and stands. "OK, listen up," says Reppenhagen, a burly former sniper who now directs the training. "Today we just have a few audits. We'll send out three teams. For the rest of us, there's a lot to do at base camp." He wears dog tags around his neck and a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses clipped onto his T-shirt.
Reppenhagen is energetic but looks as if he knows how to carefully parcel that energy out for long marches ahead. A high-school dropout who used to work at the Home Depot in Grand Junction, he joined the Army with a good buddy, hoping to see the world and get out of Dodge. It was one month before 9/11. He served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and finally Iraq. As a scout in the jittery Diyala River Valley north of Baghdad, he escorted military convoys, engineered counter-mortar operations and kicked down doors looking for insurgents. He received a medal for saving lives when the roof of a local police building came under attack. Still, Reppenhagen saw the war as a huge disappointment. He didn't feel like he was there for the right reasons. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and more Iraqis turned against the soldiers every day. " ‘Shock and awe' was undermining ‘winning hearts and minds,' " he says.
Coming home after a year in Iraq was also a letdown. Not only was the job market dismal, no one seemed to be interested in helping veterans stay in college or train for work or keep their frayed family relationships together. "You do 16 weeks of basic training to go to war, then you get to do a couple of days of training in resume writing when you get home?" Reppenhagen asks. "That's it?" He started working for a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Veterans for America, helping with public relations and shepherding legislation to help vets through Congress. But bill after bill failed, leaving him angry and disillusioned. He volunteered for a Washington, D.C.-based group called Iraqi Veterans Against the War, and that's where he met Ray Curry.
Over beers at an Irish pub in Denver a few weeks back, they'd told me their stories. Both Reppenhagen and Curry felt the war had been about oil -- and that, they decided, was a dumb reason to risk your life. In March 2006, Reppenhagen joined a five-day anti-war-and-lame-government-response-to-Katrina march from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans. In Slidell, he stayed on the property of a veteran who was retrofitting buses and construction equipment with biodiesel made from used vegetable oil. Why fight wars over Persian Gulf oil when you can make your own? For Reppenhagen, who had never been interested in environmental causes, the idea was a revelation.
"Reducing dependence on foreign oil seemed like a solution to better national security," said Reppenhagen. He heard about Veterans Green Jobs, and told Curry. Curry was already a committed environmentalist, a vegetarian who refused to own a car and opted out of consumer culture as much as possible. But it wasn't just the green-resource side of the jobs program that appealed to the two; it was the people side. "A good, meaningful job, and camaraderie and support are what a lot of veterans need," said Reppenhagen. And they need it as soon as they leave the military, before substance abuse and depression have a chance to set in.
Curry, a wiry, intense guy, had been flailing around since his discharge from the Marines in 2005. He'd done some volunteer work, but mostly he bartended in the D.C. area. "I went through three years of self-destructive cycles," he recalled. "A lot of veterans struggle in civilian jobs. It doesn't always pan out. I had authority struggles, some post-traumatic stress. I went from being a leader in the Marines to working in bars in subservient and pointless jobs. It pays the bills but it's not fulfilling." Veterans Green Jobs appeared at the right time. "Veterans believe in service," said Curry. "That's why they enlisted in the first place. But they aren't really serving these days. They need to receive services. This is a way of employing us and getting into career paths."
If the men seem to have recreated barracks life in Center, that's part of the idea.
They are comfortable living and working as a team, says Reppenhagen, and they're used to hands-on training. Support services are available if needed for mental health treatment. "They'll be finding self and purpose in the world and reconnecting with their cohort group," he said. "We're empowering veterans to do something amazing in their lives, where there's a sense of meaning and purpose again, and fold that into beneficial work."