Unprecedented setup will help veterans seeking post-military career

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Emmett Middaugh (left), a student-volunteer firefighter with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, practices hose skills with Bryan Person during a routine drill at the station. As a U.S. Army Sergeant in Iraq, Emmett E. Middaugh IV felt like he’d done a “Big Thing.”

He helped oversee the first free elections. He survived an eight-hour firefight after terrorists rammed 1,500 pounds of explosives into his command outpost. He lost one of his soldiers during the attack.

Life. Death. Comrades. Freedom. Middaugh lived in capital letters overseas.

When he returned in 2009, he was surprised to find civilian life so small.

“I was completely lost and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Then he discovered firefighting.

Middaugh, now a student-volunteer with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue, has not only found his personal calling, he’s helped forge an unprecedented arrangement with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs that could help veterans across the state and even the country.

FGF&R is the first fire department in Oregon to have its student-volunteer program approved as an official On-The-Job (OTJ) training program, which means the VA can now pay veterans serving as student-volunteer firefighters (formerly “interns”) in the same way it pays apprentices in other fields.

Such approval is "extremely uncommon across the nation,” said Kate Nicholson, education liaison with the VA. “I only know of one other state that has this type of OTJ program for firefighters.”

But it’s sorely needed, according to Middaugh and others who helped win the approval.

“A majority of veterans who come back from active duty have ‘combat’ as their skill set,” said John Kersey, who handled the OTJ approval at Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries.

“How does that translate into the workforce? Well, it doesn’t,” Kersey said — except in fields like law enforcement, firefighting/paramedics or private security.

Firefighting is a great post-military career, according to FGF&R Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer. With their hierarchies of lieutenants, captains and such, fire departments are already somewhat paramilitary, he said.

In addition, “Fire service is sort of changing,” Nemeyer said. “It used to be 20-year-olds straight out of community college applying to be firefighters, but now we’re looking at guys and girls who have a lot of life experience.”

'All very trivial'

Middaugh, a Phoenix native who first came to the Northwest to train at Fort Lewis, Wash., had almost too much life experience--at least for his return to civilian life. He missed the high intensity of the military and the courage, risk and devotion it required.

Middaugh tried bartending, autobody work, roofing. “None of it just seemed to fit. It’s all very trivial,” he said. Then one day he drove past a firehouse in Hillsboro. Spontaneously, he stopped, walked in and scheduled a ridealong for later that week.

After the ridealong, Middaugh remembers, “I walked right in and said, ‘Okay, how do I become a firefighter?’”

Middaugh began attending Portland Community College for a Fire Science degree, which requires one year of volunteer or intern experience. That’s how he ended up as a Cornelius Fire volunteer and a Forest Grove Fire student-volunteer.

Culture-wise, Middaugh discovered firefighters share the Army’s values of loyalty, discipline, hard work and motivation.

And instead of being “a cog in the big machine” protecting Americans from afar, Middaugh is helping citizens directly.

During his first month in Cornelius, Middaugh did chest compressions and helped save the life of a man who'd had a heart attack on the 13th hole at Forest Hills Golf Course.

Half a year later in Forest Grove, Middaugh helped carry an unconscious young man out of a fire.

It was moving for Middaugh to "actually physically see the gratitude" from the men when they stopped by later to thank their rescuers.

Veteran apprentices

But Middaugh’s newfound passion was beginning to overwhelm him. The post-911 GI bill paid for some — but not all — of his classes and provided a small living stipend, but only while he was in school — not during winter, spring or summer breaks.

For a while Middaugh was working full-time at FGF&R, full-time at school and bartending part-time to cover his living expenses.

There was little time to study tough subjects. “Right now, I’m in Anatomy and Physiology, which is a devastating class,” Middaugh said. He’s also taking Chemistry 2 and Humanities.

A year ago, Middaugh began hunting on the VA website for a program that might fund student-volunteer veterans so they’d have more time to devote to their Fire Science studies.

He brought the idea to Lt. Tad Buckingham, who is now volunteer recruitment and retention coordinator for FGF&R.

The VA has historically funded veterans in apprenticeships or other training programs that lead to a guaranteed job.

But firefighting is too competitive a field and too dependent on the quirks of government funding for departments to guarantee employment for their student-volunteers, Buckingham said. Still, a well-trained student-volunteer with military experience would be a top candidate for openings at other departments or emergency response companies or wildland firefighting.

Buckingham got word of the program’s approval last week.

“It’s a wonderful program to be able to open up to veterans in this field,” said the VA’s Nicholson. While it would have to be tailored to each state’s different bureaucracies, Forest Grove’s new program “does provide an example” and may be highlighted in an upcoming national conference, she said.

Middaugh said he knows plenty of “lost” veterans who could benefit: “Once I joined the fire department I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”

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