Retooling for the next mission
by Florence Williams
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."
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."
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.© High Country News