Conservation Corps Gives Military Vets a New Direction in Civilian Life

A $35,000 Edison International grant funds jobs for veterans to repair public parklands.

Karla Rubio has struggled to find steady work since leaving the U.S. Army in 2007.

She found her Army job as a mortuary affairs specialist — working with the bodies of service members who died overseas and participating at military funerals — did not translate into the civilian world. She has also juggled college classes in law enforcement with a series of jobs, mostly in retail, while raising two sons, now 5 and 8.

At 27, she needed something more reliable, with a future.

Rubio recently stumbled across an item on the Internet that the California Conservation Corps was seeking military veterans for a job-training program. She joined in January.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “It keeps me active, provides money for me and my kids and has a lot of opportunity.”

The program, funded in part through a $35,000 Edison International grant to the Conservation Lands Foundation, provides veterans up to 29 years old with training in trail structures and habitat enhancement while paying them a salary. After one year and some required volunteer work, Conservation Corps veterans qualify for financial aid for their education.

Charlotte Overby, river and restoration programs director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, said the Edison International funding benefits everyone involved.

“It provides jobs for veterans, assists the Bureau of Land Management and accomplishes some much-needed restoration work on a beautiful wilderness area,” she said.

Post-9/11 veterans have had difficulty getting jobs after they leave the service. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress reported last month that among California veterans who served after 9/11, the unemployment rate averaged 10.1 percent last year compared to 7.9 percent for the state as a whole.

The rate among younger veterans, the target group for the Conservation Corps, was even higher. The state Employment Development Department said unemployment among the youngest veterans, ages 20- 24, was 14.5 percent last June compared to 13 percent for non-veterans.

Kaleigh Savage, 20, realized that challenge and saw the Conservation Corps as a bridge between her job as an ammunition specialist in the National Guard and her plans to go to college and become a wildlife biologist.

“In my head this job was everything — the scholarship, training and certifications and the chance to network with wildlife biologists,” she said.

Although Conservation Corps members say they like the opportunities the job provides, they earn their way with old-fashioned hard work.

Rubio recently found herself on a 10-day “spike camp” with 10 other veterans in a remote part of the Black Mountain Wilderness outside of Barstow. The crew was on its own, working by day and camping at night.

They put up marker signs on about 23 miles of wilderness boundary, installed more than 100 route signs and erected two new educational kiosks. The crew also closed 13 miles of illegal roads and removed nearly 8 tons of trash, including tires that had been dumped at an abandoned cement water trough.

Scot Schmier, director of the Conservation Corps’ Inland Empire Center, said he knows how difficult it is to leave the military and find a place in the civilian world. He said it is gratifying to help the veterans find a new path.

“The (Conservation Corps) work gives them experience, structure and organization,” he said. “It is hard work, but it renews their sense of purpose.”