Not so long ago, Jack Delgado was patrolling the hot and dusty streets of Baghdad, keeping an eye out for insurgents.
Now, he's trying to spot salmon in serene North Coast creeks, surrounded only by majestic coastal redwoods.
On his first day in the field, the Sacramento native couldn't wait to wade into the water. He had to be reminded about staying on the creek bank to avoid disturbing salmon nests.
"It smells fresh," said Delgado, 23, gazing at the streaks of cirrus clouds above and already dreaming about becoming a park ranger. "I love it."
Monday was also the start of in-the-field training for Bryan Souza, 27, of Elk Grove, who was going to make a career of the Marines until he crushed his left hand. Now, he has to find a new occupation.
"I don't want to work in an office," he said. "I like being in the middle of nowhere."
In the growing number of pilot jobs programs for returning veterans, this salmon restoration project is among the most scenic. Advocacy groups, government agencies and corporations are casting a wide net for possible career paths – clean energy and high-tech manufacturing, just to name two.
While these programs could change the lives of some lucky vets, they fall far, far short of what's required. They are not going to come close to producing the huge numbers of jobs that are needed. Too many who served our country in Iraq or Afghanistan can't find work – about 211,000 who joined the military after 9/11 were on the jobless rolls last month.
Unemployment is at crisis levels for young veterans, and nowhere more so than in California, where four in 10 vets between 18 and 24 – 5,800 people – are without work.
That's a disgrace.
We are failing the men and women who risked their lives halfway around the world to fight the war on terror, while most of us sacrificed very little and went on with our lives at home. We are not holding up our end of the bargain. Businesses need to hire more vets; we can all donate time or money to veterans support groups, and can urge elected officials to make veterans a priority.
The challenge is about to get more daunting. As many as 1 million more active-duty personnel will be leaving the military in the next five years.
But I worry that our generosity and attention will wane as U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and as the memories of 9/11 fade.
Advocacy groups say much more must be done to help veterans make the transition to civilian life and more fully tap into their skills.
The reality is, however, that given the federal deficit and partisan gridlock in Washington, a major jobs bill for veterans is unlikely to happen, said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Just look at what happened this year. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Barack Obama called for a Veterans Job Corps, a $1 billion, five-year initiative to put as many as 20,000 vets to work on conservation projects in national parks and other public lands. Republicans in Congress blocked the proposal, which got mired in the fight over taxes and the federal deficit.
As politicians bicker, the unemployment rate for veterans who served after 9/11 stubbornly hovers in the double digits – 10 percent in November. Last year, California's 20 percent jobless rate for post-9/11 vets was the second highest in the country, better than only Oregon.
Younger veterans, in particular, are in a tough spot.
A good number joined the military when the recession stole their job prospects after high school. But with the armed forces downsizing, many won't be able to re-enlist. They are coming home – with little time in the civilian workforce or college – to a job market that favors those with experience and education. Some vets are also dealing with physical or psychological injuries.
Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of vets between 20 and 24 are without work. In California, the jobless rate in October for 18-to-24-year-old veterans was an astounding 44 percent, more than double the rate for non-veterans in that age group.
The salmon restoration program is aimed at this group – younger vets who have just left the military.
Nathan Stalioraitis, 20, was discharged with a back injury this month after serving in the Army and National Guard since 2009. He moved to Northern California from Pennsylvania because of this program and his interest in biology. He hopes to go back to school, put this experience on his résumé and get a fish-and-wildlife job.
"This job is good in opening up possibilities," he said.
On Monday, he and the other vets in the program hiked to fast-flowing Cow Creek, a tributary of Bull Creek that flows through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Delgado and Souza, the new crew members, were shown where salmon like to build their spawning nests called redds, how to measure the size of fish with their marked walking poles and how to use compass bearings to record the location.
This crew, based in Fortuna, is working in the Eel River watershed, while another team, based in Arcata, is in the Redwood Creek area in Humboldt County. Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead are on the threatened species lists in both areas. Accurate counts are needed to see if restoration efforts under way are making progress.
While counting fish is a specialized skill, some military know-how carries over well – teamwork, mission focus and operating in rugged terrain.
The eight vets in the program get paid $8 an hour and can qualify for as much as $7,550 for college if they finish a full year. At the end, they're not guaranteed jobs but have a foot in the door with government agencies and nonprofits and can apply for similar internships.
"If the vets do a good job, it's like a yearlong job interview," said Larry Notheis of the California Conservation Corps, which has also trained veterans as wildlands firefighters and plans to hire them for energy retrofit projects.
The program is a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Fish and Game. NOAA is putting up $175,000, the corps is giving $52,500 and Fish and Game is providing training and equipment.
Agency officials have big plans. If this pilot program is successful and if funding can be found, they hope to hire veterans for four other salmon restoration projects in California.
Eureka native Lance Adair, 24, who served in the Navy from 2006 to 2008, has big plans of his own.
Once he completes the program in August, he plans to finish his paramedic training, then seek a job that uses those skills plus his experience in grant writing, and that keeps him in vistas like the North Coast.
"I enjoy every single bit of it," he said. "One of the biggest stress relievers is just being outside."
Souza is also hopeful that the program will lead to the right job, but the sputtering economy scares him. After eight years serving in the Marines around the world, he rose through the ranks to sergeant, commanding a unit and supervising millions of dollars in military equipment. He wonders whether that will count for much now.
"Is that worth anything to the civilian world?" he asks. "I don't know."
I don't know, either. I have serious doubts whether there will be enough success stories in the growing army of young and jobless vets. If they struggle, we can't honestly say that we have honored their service. And our nation won't truly renew itself after more than a decade of war.