Vets-Turned-Firefighters Find Brotherhood, Purpose

Nov 11, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2013 10:04 am

Veteran Chris Delplato wanted to be a firefighter for a long time.

"Ever since I was a little kid — [toy] truck and everything," Delplato says. But he only just got his dream job, after first joining the Navy and serving in the Persian Gulf.

He was hired by New Jersey's North Hudson Fire Department, which has brought on 43 veterans this year.

Employment for veterans of recent wars remains a stubborn problem, with the jobless rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes reaching double the national rate. Beyond just trying to find a job, many vets say after the military, they're still looking for a career with a sense of public service.

Delplato's fire chief, Frank Montagne, says he's looking to hire 10 to 20 more veterans by the end of the year and into 2014. He says the vets are disciplined and skilled and their military background makes them well suited to the job. The recruits say firefighting gives them the sense of camaraderie and purpose they miss.

"I've always wanted to do it. I've seen the brotherhood. Everyone [has] each other's backs — the camaraderie same as the military," says North Hudson rookie firefighter John Warth, a former Marine.

"It's the same way [as the military] — we sit around and wait for things to happen. We sit around the table [and] discuss stories. It's definitely a family atmosphere like the military is," says Kamil Mizinski, a Navy vet and another rookie.

Battalion Chief Richard Hess says many of the veterans really needed the job. "Some of them were having difficulty having jobs just like everybody else in this economy," he says. "Some of them had ... started working in careers that really weren't up to the expectation they had for ... what they want to do with their life."

Jaime Montes served six years in the Marine Corps. He served two tours in Iraq as a combat engineer. Then he came home and got a job as an extruder operator at an adhesives factory, melting plastics into glue.

"You go from somewhere where you have this tremendous amount of responsibility and then you come home and you have a regular old, little job. It almost seems insignificant," he says.

Vets get preferential treatment for hiring in the fire department, but Montes still feels like he won the lottery — even if he's gone from a Marine sergeant to probationary firefighter.

"You start off right at the bottom, cleaning toilets and everything, washing dishes. I don't mind. I worked my way up once, I'll do it again," he says.

The "probies" are constantly training and testing on the hoses, the pumps, the engines and ladders. Mizinski, Warth and Delplato fought their first big fires this fall. Mizinski was on the roof of the burning apartment building, Warth was inside. Delplato was in a house fire so hot it melted the visor on his helmet.

"[I] was nervous. There was thick black smoke and flames shooting out the front door. Was hot, was very hot, and you couldn't see anything," Delplato says. "I wanted more. When they pulled us out I was like 'Let's go back in! Let's go back in!' Deputy chief pulled us out."

And Mizinski: "It gets a little dangerous, but we have lot of veteran firefighters that lead us in the right direction."

Warth says he loves knowing he's helping people in need. Plus, he says, "I think all military guys are adrenaline junkies. Now I'm putting it to good use."

Hess, the battalion chief, is also happy with the arrangement.

"As a department, we're just happy to get a good quality group of guys," he says. "At the same time, it's rewarding on our end to provide them a chance for a good occupation after what they've done for us."

And soon, this group of veterans will become veteran firefighters.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Employment for military veterans remains a stubborn problem. With deployments ending, the jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan War vets has often been higher than the national rate, sometimes even double. Beyond just trying to find a job, many vets say that after the military they are looking for a career that offers a sense of public service.

NPR's Quil Lawrence brings us a story of some veterans who've found just that, at the North Hudson fire department in New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISPATCHER AND SIRENS)

JOHN WARTH: Well, I've always wanted to do it. I've seen the brotherhood, you know, everyone has those backs, the camaraderie - same as the military.

CHRIS DELPLATO: Always wanted to be a firefighter, ever since I was a little kid. You know? Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

DELPLATO: Yes, sir. Truck, everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

KAMIL MIZINSKI: The same way, you know, we sit around and wait for things to happen. We sit around the table, discuss stories, it's definitely in a family atmosphere like the military is.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: That was John Warth, former Marine, Chris Delplato and Kamil Mizinski, both Navy vets. They're part of the newest class of rookie firefighters at North Hudson Regional. Frank Montagne is their fire chief.

FRANK MONTAGNE: We hired 43 veterans. We're looking to hire possibly anywhere from 10 to 20 more by the end of this year, early into next year. So...

LAWRENCE: Montagne says the vets are disciplined, skilled, and his Battalion Chief Richard Hess says many of them really needed the job.

RICHARD HESS: Some of them were having difficulty having jobs, just like everybody else in this economy. Some of them had gotten, you know, started working in careers that really weren't not up to the expectation they had for - I guess for what they want to do with their life.

JAMIE MONTES: My name is Jamie Montes, I served six years in the Marine Corps.

LAWRENCE: Montes did two Iraq tours as a combat engineer. Then he came home and got a job as an extruder operator at an adhesives factory, melting plastics into glue.

MONTES: Well, yeah. You go from somewhere where you have this tremendous amount of responsibility in this - and then you come home and you have a regular, old, little job that, you know, it almost seems insignificant. So...

LAWRENCE: Vets get preferential treatment for hiring in the fire department, but Montes still feels like he won the lottery; even if he's gone from a Marine sergeant to probationary firefighter - a probie.

MONTES: Oh, you start off right at the bottom. Right at the bottom, yeah, cleaning toilets and everything.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTES: Eh, washing dishes - hey, I don't mind. I worked my way up once, I'll do it again. So...

LAWRENCE: The probies are constantly training and testing on the hoses, the pumps, the engines and ladders. But these guys already fit in pretty well. And for most of them they joined for the same reason they joined the military: For the camaraderie, the sense of public service, and for the adventure.

Mizinski, Delplato and Warth fought their first big fires this fall.

MIZINSKI: We hit 98th Street. You know, we come up top and we pretty much cut the roof open.

DELPLATO: It was nervous. There was thick black smoke and flames, you know, shooting out the front door. Was hot, it was very hot and you couldn't see anything.

MIZINSKI: The hair on the back of your neck stands up a little bit, 'cause the roofs on fire. You walk...

DELPLATO: So hot you don't feel anything else. You know? The adrenaline is just right there.

WARTH: I wanted more. You know, when they pulled us out, I was like, ah, let's go back in. Go back in, you know. Deputy chief pulled us out.

MIZINSKI: It gets a little dangerous, but we have lot of veteran firefighters that, you know, lead us in the right direction. So...

WARTH: I think it's the adrenaline. I think all Marines - well, military guys are adrenaline junkies. Now I'm putting it to good use.

MIZINSKI: Can't wait for another one. I mean...

WARTH: Every day I love it. I come to work happy. To know you could actually help - you're helping people. Every day you coming into work you're helping somebody. You know, somebody needs help you're at their call. It's nice to do that and I don't mind doing it.

LAWRENCE: That last voice was John Warth who was inside an apartment building on fire, then Kamil Mizinski, who was on the roof of the same building, and Chris Delplato who was in a house fire so hot it melted the visor on his helmet.

HESS: As a department, I think we're just, you know, we're happy to get, you know, a good quality group of guys,

LAWRENCE: Again that's Battalion Chief Richard Hess.

HESS: At the same time, it's, you know, it's rewarding on our end to provide them with a chance for a good occupation after what they've done for us.

LAWRENCE: Pretty soon this group of veterans will become veteran firefighters.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: To see a slideshow of a day in the life of these vets-turned-firefighters, go to NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.