The military veterans marched single file toward a plume of white smoke, dressed in full gear and ready for their first taste of action on the front lines.

Armed with pulaskis, shovels and chainsaws, they quickly surrounded the slow-moving forest fire and dug a ring of dirt to stop it from spreading. Taking cues from their squad boss, the team worked in lockstep and called out every move in order to stay together.

It’s not exactly the same as the military, but Ben Barnett said there’s a structure and discipline to wildland firefighting that reminds him of his four years in the Navy. He missed that brotherhood while attending college in Georgia, and decided to make his way west to Oregon to embark on a new career.

Barnett, 31, is one of several young veterans participating in this year’s VetsWork GreenCorps program on the Umatilla National Forest. VetsWork provides environmental internships and hands-on training for veterans ages 19-35 interested in pursuing a job in forest and natural resources management.

Friday marked the final day of Northeast Oregon Fire School, where first-year firefighters from the Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Indian Affairs spent last week learning the basics in preparation for the upcoming fire season. The first three days were reserved for classroom lectures, but Friday gave the chance to practice on a real blaze — albeit a small, carefully controlled burn, which was ignited along the Marcus Whitman Trail off Summit Road between Pendleton and La Grande.

About 90 seasonal firefighters took part in the exercise, including the veterans crew, which hiked off the gravel road and flanked their portion of the fire while the lead sawyer trimmed low-hanging branches.

Barnett said working with the crew has been a life changing experience.

“I was just going to college by myself,” he said. “Being a veteran, it’s hard to find people who think like me.”

With the Navy, Barnett served on the USS Carl Vinson, launching air strikes over Afghanistan. Two months after Barnett was discharged in 2011, the body of Osama bin Laden was buried at sea off the deck of the ship.

Barnett later earned his associate degrees in general education and criminal justice from St. Clair Community College in Michigan, and said he would eventually like to work as a park ranger using what he’s learned through VetsWork. In the meantime, firefighting is another way Barnett said he can help keep his country safe.

“I’ve always wanted to be a public servant,” Barnett said. “I took the oath to defend this country from threats both foreign and domestic. That’s an oath I live my life by.”

Wildfires certainly posed a major threat across the West a year ago. The National Interagency Fire Center estimates wildfires burned more than 10 million acres in 2015, which is the most since at least 1988. Three firefighters were also killed while trying to escape the Twisp Fire in Washington.

State and federal agencies collaborate every year on Fire School to show new firefighters what to expect and how they can stay safe, said Jeff Duke, a hand crew supervisor with the Umatilla National Forest’s Walla Walla Ranger District. He said organizers do what they can to paint as realistic a picture as possible, so firefighters are ready for their first real emergency.

“It’s always good to see them get a live fire exposure,” Duke said. “It seems to hit home when you relate your fire school experience with your first fires.”

The VetsWork GreenCorps program launched in 2014 as a collaboration between the Umatilla National Forest and Mt. Adams Institute based in Trout Lake, Washington. The goal is to help veterans transition back to civilian life through workforce development programs, with a focus on firefighting and the environment. Paola Gomez, 23, said she first heard about the program online and decided to give it a try. Gomez served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two years stationed as a radio operator in Okinawa, Japan. She said she’s always wanted to be a firefighter.

“It’s a physical job. Teamwork is needed. That’s essentially what the military is,” she said.

Gomez, who came from Gresham, said it’s also healing to get out of the city and work in the forest. She said that once the first fires start, they will be ready.

“I think we have good leaders, and a good group of people who will do a good job out there,” she said.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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