Veterans Find New Home in Volunteer Fire Service

Military veterans who followed the path from national service to community service talk about what it means to be both a vet and a volunteer firefighter

By Rick Markley

The fire service has many parallels to the military. Both require a service to others, often in dangerous situations. Both demand and inspire a sense of duty. Both require physical and mental strength, which takes continuous conditioning. And both foster a strong sense of camaraderie and teamwork among their ranks.

For volunteer fire departments looking to boost their ranks, military veterans are high-value targets. In fact, organizations like Soldier Firefighter and the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Make Me A Firefighter campaign actively work to draw veterans into the fire service.

Certainly volunteer departments that bring on firefighters with a military background can expect to get more than impeccably shined boots and the ability to always be on time. And, of course, they do.

Harry Whitlock served 24 years in the Army before becoming a volunteer firefighter

Yet what motivates the veteran-turned-volunteer-firefighter, what their mindset is and what skills they bring to the mix is more nuanced and complicated than the cliches. To better understand this, we talked to those who know it best.

Harry Whitlock served 24 years in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of major. He has 7 years as a firefighter with the Vedauwoo Volunteer Fire Department in Albany County, located in the southeast corner of Wyoming. He’s held board positions and was chief for a year and a half. He says he would have volunteered sooner but wrongly thought his age and travel distance to the fire station would disqualify him.

Whitlock enlisted straight out of high school, and his military career directly prepared him for work as a first responder.

Whitlock in Iraq, 1991

“My first taste of firefighting [was] when our unit was called out to help with wildland fires at Fort Rucker, Alabama,” Whitlock says. But his focus shifted to the medical side. He went through ROTC, earned a science degree and became an officer in the Medical Services Corps. He was deployed for both Desert Storm and Desert Shield and was part of the peacekeeping force sent to Bosnia.

He’s very clear on the advantages his military time gave him as he moved into his volunteer firefighting life.

“Understanding command structure, prioritizing missions with limited resources, the importance of training under all conditions and having self-discipline,” he says. “Also, knowing sometimes you just have to embrace the suck and endure a challenging situation to accomplish a mission.”

Josh Coleman with his father, a submarine service veteran, at the Naval Academy campus

That “embracing the suck” sentiment is echoed by U.S. Navy veteran Josh Coleman.

“Something that people still don’t understand is how the more miserable the environment, the happier I seem to be,” Coleman says. “One big advantage to having military experience is understanding if you have good training habits that those skills will be there without conscious thought when needed most.”

Coleman served in the Navy for 4 years, leaving as Petty Officer Third Class. He was a machinist mate in the submarine service responsible for operating systems from potable water to hydraulics as well as primary damage control response for things like flooding and fire.

“The veteran community blends with the fire service more than people who have not served in both realize,” Coleman says. “As a veteran, I was surprised how at home I felt once the new-guy smell wore off.”

Like Whitlock, Coleman had no firefighting experience prior to joining the armed forces. Now he serves as captain on the Floyd/Romance Fire Department, located in rural White County, Ark. He has been a volunteer firefighter for only 3 years but is already improving how his department trains. And he is relying on what he learned in the Navy to get that done.

Coleman finds the veteran community blends well with the fire service

“A big challenge I’ve had as a veteran in the fire service is members not understanding how detrimental bad training habits are — and that they won’t rise to the occasion, that they will default to those bad habits,” Coleman says. “I’ve been able to overcome this by slowing the training down and taking a military approach (not boot camp), explaining the why’s. Then I use the crawl, walk, run system to slowly crank up the speed and intensity of evolutions.

“It has taken some time, but now the members see the results from good training practices and are incredibly engaged in the beginning stages of learning. This has helped build the camaraderie and confidence within the ranks.”

Whitlock finds that it is the sense of purpose and family that makes the fire service so appealing to the veteran community.

“Belonging to the fire service has filled the void in my heart left by leaving the military,” he says. “Working in a civilian job left me disenchanted, sometimes even disgusted, by the self-serving attitudes of many employees and bosses. I needed ‘brothers and sisters in arms,’ people with a concern for mixing public service with a little adventure.”

Veterans looking to continue their service by helping their community as a volunteer firefighter can contact their local volunteer fire department or go to to find local opportunities.