Flaherty, Cassidy and Gutierrez practically leap from the car at a small blue house on State Street. After several weeks of training, they're a well-coordinated team in their matching green sport shirts, cracking jokes as they carry in their tools, lightbulbs and paperwork. If this were a movie, it would be Ghost Busters meets An Inconvenient Truth, with a little Jarhead thrown in. Bernardine Atencio, visibly pregnant, answers the door. She volunteered for this audit to help cut her monthly expenses. She explains that she recently moved into the rental, but has lost her job. And she has other problems: "My refrigerator keeps freezing my food and ruining it," she says.
Flaherty starts dismantling her chandelier while Cassidy explains that replacing one incandescent lightbulb can save $50-$70 over the lifetime of the bulb. Next, Flaherty tests her water temperature. At 156 degrees, it's about 30 degrees hotter than it should be. "Oh man, this will save her $12 a month," he says. Cassidy studies her electric bill. "Your kilowatts are high -- 995 is a lot. That may be your fridge acting too cold." Gutierrez determines that the freezer registers -8 degrees, when it should be closer to zero.
Cassidy dons a headlamp and mask and goes off to look at the attic and basement insulation. (There is none.) He tells Atencio she'd be a good candidate for a tier two or tier three retrofit, which Veterans Greens Jobs hopes to be doing soon. As they prepare to depart for their next assignment, Cassidy calls out reassuringly, "Hopefully, we'll save you some money on your bills, make life a little easier."
At the next stop, a trailer surrounded by chain-link fence and a warning sign, the resident is a no-show. (Every day, there's at least one.) The team, though, has become efficient. They will audit 250 houses in nine weeks. On the weekends, they do team-building exercises, take art and poetry classes and tour the area. I ask if they've visited the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
"Are you kidding me?" groans Flaherty. "I will be so happy if I never see another sand dune in my entire life." Even so, Colorado must seem pretty nice after Iraq. "It's beautiful here," says Flaherty, "but there's a lot of poverty. We've come back with a low tolerance for injustice. That's why it feels good to actually be helping people."
Even though changing light bulbs is a small step toward a green revolution, the men clearly feel good about it. Says Cassidy, "Instead of destroying people's lives, we're helping them. It's a hell of a lot more fun than busting down doors and pointing guns in people's faces. This is a small-enough community that I feel like we're making a difference."
Their own prospects are looking better, too, both in terms of future employment and their own mental health. Gutierrez expects to land in Oklahoma City for more training in weatherization with Western Fibers, an insulation company. Flaherty and Cassidy will be hired by Veterans Green Jobs to help expand the program. They largely attribute their personal recoveries to just hanging out together. "Here," says Cassidy, "we're forced to build relationships with each other. It's kind of like peer counseling. A lot of veterans don't trust people that aren't vets. Living together like this puts you at ease to say things, share thoughts. Just saying it helps."
After three more home visits, the men return to their cafeteria in Center for a dinner of chicken fajitas and rice. Before tonight's class in Environmental Ethics, during which they will discuss responsibility, authoritarianism and their roles as agents of change, Flaherty runs up to his room. It looks like a dorm, with a metal bunk bed, a pile of dirty laundry and a stash of snack food. A surprising shock of color comes from the patchwork quilt on the bed -- made by Flaherty's great-grandmother, he tells me. It's a reminder of a softer, sweeter connection to civilian and family life. Maybe Center's barracks are not that much like those in Iraq, after all. Here the men are just a stretch of asphalt from home. They can see their future, and it looks pretty good.
Florence Williams is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and also writes for the New York Times and other publications. She lives in Colorado.