Pierre Brown is a bartender at Bootlegger’s Bar and Grill in Troy. He seems happy with his job, but something is missing, and it’s been missing ever since he returned from active duty in the Marine Corps.
He served eight years. Since he’s been back in civilian life, he’s seen some military friends return for third and fourth deployments.
“And every time I hear about that or see what they’re doing, I kind of wish I was doing more,” he said.
Brown was at Clifton Park and Halfmoon Emergency Corps on Sunday morning to learn about an opportunity to do something more — through a new program offering free EMT training and certification for veterans.
The corps launched the program last week with informational sessions Wednesday and Sunday, and is looking for at least 10 interested veterans to get a class started. The course, usually $1,000, will run six months with classes two evenings per week.
At the end, participants will come away with an EMT certificate from the New York State Department of Health and the opportunity to start an unpaid internship with Clifton Park and Halfmoon Emergency Corps.
The program offers an elegant solution to a difficult problem: Many veterans, especially those struggling to get a foothold in civilian life, are also too proud to seek help, according to organizers. But the EMT training course isn’t offering veterans a handout — it’s asking them to help others and serve their communities, and learn a valuable skill along the way.
“This looked like an opportunity to basically be of service,” said Brown. “I just want to be able to help if needed.”
Joseph Santiago, executive director of Clifton Park and Halfmoon Emergency Corps, said the program came after a lot of thought about how to help struggling veterans. As a member of the Veterans Business Council of Saratoga County, he saw the business community there doing great things for veterans and wanted to get the Corps involved.
“Giving discounts and doing fundraisers isn’t really in our wheelhouse,” he said, “but training medical folks is.”
Santiago is a veteran of the U.S. Army. Another program founder and instructor, EMT Russ Coonradt, is a Navy veteran. He said he’s seen the same story repeated too many times: A soldier returns home and struggles to find the same meaning he felt while serving his country abroad.
“They get out of the military and they go from what is essentially one of the most honorable professions in the world — you’re a war fighter, you’re protecting your country — and then they get home and they don’t have a purpose,” he said. “They’re doing yardwork, they’re working on the side of the road somewhere. They feel like they’ve lost everything that they were. So this is kind of giving them the chance to continue to serve their country and their community.”
The majority of the instructors in the program will be veterans, like Santiago and Coonradt, to “build an environment that is understanding and safe,” said Santiago.
In normal classes, he said, veterans have a high dropout rate. They tend to be older and more experienced than most of their classmates, and can feel isolated and frustrated. Brown said he found the same thing to be true in the college courses he tried enrolling in when he returned from service.
“I think the veterans feel out of place,” said Santiago. “So we want to try to overcome that by creating an environment that is for veterans, by veterans, and see if we can’t overcome those challenges of assimilating and finding comfort and safety in the program.”
When they sit around and talk with veterans like Brown about becoming an EMT, the conversation is laced with military jargon and inside jokes. They don’t have to explain their tattoos to each other, or the meaning of the bracelets they wear.
“The only way anyone’s going to fail this class will be through their lack of effort,” Coonradt tells one potential participant. “It’s not any harder than anything you guys did in the Marine Corps. We can slap you in the head when you get a wrong answer if that helps.”
The course will also include primers in skills like interviewing and resume development to prepare veterans for the workforce, he said. At the end, they’ll have the option of starting an unpaid internship with the Corps to build experience before seeking a job elsewhere.
There will also be a mental health component to refer veterans to outside help if problems are detected.
“Ultimately, I think those veterans will feel that they’re contributing again, rather than maybe some of the work that they’re doing right now,” he said. “That they’re contributing to their fellow man, that they’re doing those altruistic things that we all experience when we’re overseas.”
The EMT certification could just be a side job, a way to give back to the community, Santiago said. Or, it could be a stepping stone to a career, like it was for him, either in emergency response or in another area of health care.
Matt Seeber, a Marine Corps veteran who came in Sunday, saw it as an opportunity to be a better police officer.
“It’s just going to help me serve the community that I work for with added skill sets that are geared toward first response,” he said. “It will make me more proficient at my job, because I’m trained in tactical combat casualty care, been trained in combat lifesaving, and this is just another step that will add to that toolbox.”
Clifton Park and Halfmoon Emergency Corps has more than 80 members and responds to more than 5,300 calls a year in Clifton Park, Halfmoon, Hemstreet Park, Mechanicville, and surrounding communities. Santiago noted that while the Corps would welcome veterans from this program into their ranks “if the opportunity presented itself,” the agency is currently fully staffed.
Santiago says interest in the program was slow at first. The veterans community they wanted to help — mainly unemployed or underemployed veterans — proved difficult to reach. They don’t tend to be involved at Veterans Affairs hospitals or groups, said Coonradt.
“They’re guys that are working,” he said. “They’re working jobs that they hate, that they’re overqualified for, six, seven days a week to provide for their family.”
He’s hoping word will spread, even if slowly.
By mid-morning Sunday, the corps had about five interested veterans, halfway to the 10 needed to start a course. Santiago said he was optimistic they’d have what they needed by the end of the day. If they get enough interest fast enough, he’d like to start a course by September, and be awarding the first certificates next summer.
By the time Seeber and Brown left Sunday morning, they were both on board.
“I’m a bartender,” said Brown. “I can make a million and one cocktails, I can tell you a lot about how to run a business and such like that. But to actually help people, that actually really means something. That’s something I can take home at night and feel proud about.”