Finding a Way to Serve at Home: How a veteran found meaningful work with Southwest Conservation Corps

Where are they now? – Catching up with 2012 Corpsmember of the Year,
Mike Bremer

Mike Bremer, formerly of Southwest Conservation Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2012 for his commitment to service. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Mike and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2012 National Conference.

There's one bet Mike Bremer isn't sorry he lost...

When he first met his wife she was serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA.  After hearing about the program Mike joked with her about how she must be “some kind of hippie.” His wife reacted by making a bet with Mike that she could find an AmeriCorps program that he would enjoy. Mike shrugged off her challenge, but it wasn’t long before she stumbled across a description of Southwest Conservation Corps’ Veterans Fire Corps.

Mike served in the Army Infantry in Iraq. When he got home he felt like his life lacked a purpose. He struggled for a number of years to find meaningful employment.

“I refueled jet aircraft. I didn’t like that. Machinist - I tried that, too. House painting - didn’t like that, either,” said Mike.

The Veterans Fire Corps program was associated with AmeriCorps – an organization that Mike’s wife was familiar with. On top of that, the Corps was accepting any and all veterans. Mike thought he should give it a try. He ended up serving as a Corpsmember from May 2010 to April 2011.

While in the Corps, Mike worked in three different districts of the San Juan National Forest and also for the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management. He completed fuels mitigation projects, pile burning, and area burns. He received high ratings in chainsaw safety training, wildland fire fighting, and behavior classes. Mike’s exceptional ability with a chainsaw also ensured that he could become the sawyer for his crew, an integral and coveted position, especially for a first year firefighter. Based on his performance and the strong bonds he made with his fellow Corpsmembers, the staff of Southwest Conservation Corps promoted Mike to Crew Leader the following spring.      

“With the Corps, I was able to get back to service – that’s when I’ve been at my best. It was good to be with a group of great vets – we all could share our experiences,” said Mike.

After completing the Conservation Corps program, Mike says most of the vets on his crew ended up taking jobs in wildland firefighting. Mike was hired by the U.S. Forest Service as a seasonal wildland firefighter and sawyer for San Juan National Forest in Colorado. He then got promoted to be a fulltime firefighter for the Forest Service with a hand crew in northern California. He is currently part of an apprenticeship program based out of Six Rivers National Forest in Eureka, California. The program gives Mike the opportunity to travel throughout the country and gain experience with different types of wildland fires.

Though Mike is very happy with his current position, the job is definitely not an easy one: between May and September of 2012, he ended up working about 800 hours of overtime - about 100 days of extra work. Mike says he and the guys from the Veterans Fire Corps have maintained contact and swap stories about their experiences in the field.

“We saw some pretty extreme fire behavior this past season,” said Mike.

As part of his apprenticeship, Mike will attend the Fire Academy; a month-long program in Sacramento that trains firefighters for future leadership positions. Mike definitely sees firefighting as a career he wants to stay with.

“I’d like to stay in fire operations as long as my body will hold out,” said Mike.
Firefighting had never been on Mike’s radar until he joined the Veterans Fire Corps. He feels like he would probably be in “some lame job that [he] hated” if his wife hadn’t helped him find the Corps. Mike says he would strongly recommend the Corps experience to other veterans who might be struggling to find meaning in civilian life.

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, Mike says:
“Just hang in there and do a good job every day. You never know – it could lead to bigger and better things.”