Vets-Turned-Firefighters Find Brotherhood, Purpose

  • Probationary firefighter and military veteran Victor Ramos gets truck driving practice near the 16th Street Firehouse in Union City, N.J. New Jersey's North Hudson Fire Department hired 43 veterans this year.
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    Probationary firefighter and military veteran Victor Ramos gets truck driving practice near the 16th Street Firehouse in Union City, N.J. New Jersey's North Hudson Fire Department hired 43 veterans this year.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Navy veteran and firefighting rookie Kamil Mizinski, center right, trains with his team at the 16th Street Firehouse in Union City, N.J. "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 Mizinski.
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    Navy veteran and firefighting rookie Kamil Mizinski, center right, trains with his team at the 16th Street Firehouse in Union City, N.J. "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 Mizinski.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Firefighter William Shelton trains probationary firefighter and veteran Victor Ramos on ropes and knots at the 16th Street Firehouse.
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    Firefighter William Shelton trains probationary firefighter and veteran Victor Ramos on ropes and knots at the 16th Street Firehouse.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Probationary firefighters Victor Ramos (center) and Andres Godoy (right) joke during training at the 16th Street Firehouse.
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    Probationary firefighters Victor Ramos (center) and Andres Godoy (right) joke during training at the 16th Street Firehouse.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • A view of the exterior of the station. Battalion Chief Richard Hess says many of the vets 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."
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    A view of the exterior of the station. Battalion Chief Richard Hess says many of the vets 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."
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Left to right, Andres Godoy, John Palombini, Kamil Mizinski, Greg Kemp and Capt. Bill Laban, have dinner at the 16th Street Firehouse. This day was Godoy's second day at the house. For Kemp, it was his 24th year.
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    Left to right, Andres Godoy, John Palombini, Kamil Mizinski, Greg Kemp and Capt. Bill Laban, have dinner at the 16th Street Firehouse. This day was Godoy's second day at the house. For Kemp, it was his 24th year.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Firefighter Mizinski was in the first group of veterans hired in 2012 by North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. Many vets say after the military, they're still looking for a career with a sense of public service.
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    Firefighter Mizinski was in the first group of veterans hired in 2012 by North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. Many vets say after the military, they're still looking for a career with a sense of public service.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Capt. Joe McClean heads out on a call — which turned out to be a false alarm.
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    Capt. Joe McClean heads out on a call — which turned out to be a false alarm.
    Melanie Burford for NPR
  • Veteran Kamil Mizinski rests up between calls. Shifts run from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. the next day. Fire chief Frank Montagne says he's looking to hire 10 to 20 more 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.
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    Veteran Kamil Mizinski rests up between calls. Shifts run from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. the next day. Fire chief Frank Montagne says he's looking to hire 10 to 20 more 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.
    Melanie Burford for NPR

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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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