After breakfast, I get "embedded" in a team of three dispatched to Alamosa, the valley's biggest town, population 15,000, about 40 minutes away. We drive in Mike Flaherty's beat-up Ford sedan. Flaherty, 27, was a gate guard and fuels operator for the 59th Quartermaster Company. Riding shotgun is Tom Cassidy, 26, who was a logistics specialist and Reppenhagen's roommate in Iraq, and in the back sits Steve "Don't-Call-Me-Buddha" Gutierrez, a veteran of the Marines from the 1980s. For all three, leaving the military has brought its struggles. Gutierrez lost his construction job last year and has been living at his sister's in Arvada, Colo., grappling with the legacy of being a bad-boy Marine.
"It's not a switch you turn off, when you get out of the Marines," says Gutierrez, now 44. "It took me years to notice my behavior was getting me in trouble, and there was no support there." When Flaherty got discharged, he had a drinking problem, and Cassidy suffered intense feelings of guilt and remorse for actions in Iraq.
Flaherty met Reppenhagen when they were both taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs and Flaherty was working at Joe's Crab Shack.
Flaherty knew his lease was about to be up this spring, and although he wasn't particularly interested in the environment, green-collar jobs seemed like a rare growth industry. About this, of course, he's right. President Obama's stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, directs about $50 billion for renewable energy and efficiency programs nationwide, including about $130 million for weatherizing homes and $50 million for other energy programs in Colorado alone. That could lead to the creation of 59,000 jobs in the state, and 3 million to 4 million nationally.
Cassidy was working at a mall in Bloomington, Ind., when Reppenhagen called his old roommate to recruit him. "What I was doing, selling stuff, was eating at my soul," says Cassidy, who had recently traveled the country and Europe speaking out against the war. "It was a no-brainer for me."
Gutierrez found out about the organization when he walked into the homeless veterans' center in Denver to pick up grocery vouchers and bus fare. A manager there told him Reppenhagen from Veterans Greens Jobs was showing up the next day if he was interested. Gutierrez raced over to a computer and polished up his resume.
As newly certified home energy auditors, the men will be able to earn contract work and train other veterans as the organization branches out to Louisiana, New Mexico and Washington. Today, they will be doing "tier one" work -- basic inspections in homes whose residents requested audits through the state's low-income energy assistance program. The work funds the training and enables the veterans to earn a stipend while learning new skills in various green-collar fields, from energy retrofits to solar installation to biodiesel conversion and forest conservation work.
The stimulus money has been an unanticipated boon to Veterans Green Jobs founder and director, Brett KenCairn. KenCairn is a Wyoming-bred community organizer who worked to retrain loggers in the Pacific Northwest after the spotted owl controversy, and then worked with Native Americans on sustainable forestry projects in Arizona and New Mexico. Now based in Boulder, Colo., he saw linking veterans to green jobs as a solution to two big problems: underemployed vets and an existing workforce too small to tackle global warming. "If we don't figure out how to mobilize a new workforce at a dramatic scale, our chances of averting climate change are virtually nil," KenCairn had told me. "We need to retrofit every building in our built environment. Veterans represent one of the best workforce assets because they're already ready for rapid training and deployment," he says. "Our motto is: ‘Retool for Your Next Mission.' "
The Wal-Mart Foundation loved the idea and provided $750,000 in seed money for the first trainings. In Colorado, the Governor's Energy Office currently funds and oversees weatherizing about 4,000 homes a year. The stimulus bill will double or triple that for the next three years, according to deputy director Seth Portner. When the work goes up for bid, Portner thinks Veterans Green Jobs stands a good chance of winning some contracts. "Having been acquainted with the Veterans Green Jobs concept, I think it's nothing short of brilliant," he says.
By the end of the summer, 200 veterans will receive green-jobs training, with a goal of tripling that number in 2010. Trainees can receive college credit if they want it, and many will gain professional certification in at least one of four areas having to do with energy efficiency retrofits: as a building analyst, an "envelope" professional, a home energy rating auditor, or a computer systems auditing analyst.
If Reppenhagen is right, this program could help ease the ache of a bad war, both for the veterans themselves and their oil-hungry homeland. Guys like Gutierrez, Cassidy and Flaherty may be just the bridge America needs to popularize the green economy. "The link to average Americans is missing right now," he says. "It's one thing to want to be a hippie in Boulder and hug a tree; it's a whole other level to be a veteran and say, ‘Hey, I'm coming home from a war fighting for oil.' I think the culture clash could be decreased by realizing there's something seriously patriotic about energy independence."