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Veterans excel on another front -- fighting forest fires

California Conservation Corps

Veterans train with the California Conservation Corps in May 2012. Branden Gray, left, was recently hired by the U.S. Forest Service on the Laguna Hot Shots crew in Descanso, Calif.

As a staff sergeant in the Marines, Branden Gray received two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Baghdad, a 7-year-old boy he thought wanted a Snickers candy bar stabbed him in the back. During a raid in Afghanistan, a piece of shrapnel from an improvised bomb severed an artery in his right leg.

"I was in a medically induced coma for a while,” Gray said. “I woke up one day thinking I was in still in Afghanistan, but I heard German voices. I was in a hospital in Germany.” He later was moved stateside to a hospital in Dallas.

After recuperating and fulfilling his four-year contract, Gray, 25, worked on earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia College. But he yearned for a job with the pace he was accustomed to in the special forces of the Marine Corps.

So he joined an elite U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew called the Laguna Hot Shots based in Descanso, Calif., near San Diego. The Hot Shots are friendly rivals of the Smoke Jumpers in fighting wildfires — “the best of the best,” said Gray.

He is one of a many young veterans who instead of holding a weapon this summer, is wielding a chainsaw or firefighting hoe to battle blazes in forests around the country.

“The work is hard,” Gray told msnbc.com in phone call between assignments. “But the people are second to none.”

California Conservation Corps

Veterans train with the California Conservation Corps earlier this year.

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The discipline and command structure of firefighting crews are similar to the military, firefighters say, and the skills they gained in military service — like working as a team for a common mission — are fully transferable.

“Like the Marines, you can’t be distracted by petty things, you just have to figure out a way to see your objective and stay locked on,” Gray said.

Gray hooked on with the Hot Shots after completing a 10-month training program through the California Conservation Corps (CCC). The California program is one branch of a nationwide effort to move veterans into the work force that includes federal AmeriCorps, the nonprofit Veterans Green Jobs initiative and conservation corps in several states.

 “Veterans have just been through more already by the time the come into the CCC,” said David Muraki, CCC's director. “We are interested in accelerating their transition into the domestic work force.”

Like the military, the work is demanding and the jobs require a high level of physical fitness.

“Our motto is ‘hard work, low pay, miserable conditions,’” said Muraki. 

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Since the program began in 2011, more than 130 young veterans have been trained to fight fires through the California Conservation Corps alone, Susanne Levitsky, CCC spokeswoman, told msnbc.com. Two CCC crews of veterans are helping fight wildfires in Utah and Nevada now, she said.

Related: Jobless vets need to think outside military box

Many veterans, like Gray, go on to a future seasonal or full-time jobs with the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Gray is a month into his job with the Hot Shots as a seasonal worker and is thinking about a future full-time job.

“Bringing some of that military leadership certainly helped,” Gray said. “And many of the others firefighters here have that experience and put it to good use.”

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