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Veterans Thrive In Service Fields After Military Careers End

For military veterans, joining a service-oriented organization like the fire department can make for an easier transition to life away from combat.

For Fort Smith firefighter Ethan Millard, a first lieutenant in the Arkansas National Guard who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, a sense of satisfaction comes with both jobs.

"What I like about the fire service, not to get all mushy, but it's helping," said Millard, 36, who joined the department in July 2000. "There's that instant gratification with our job. Prime example: A house is on fire; you put it out."

The sense of protecting those who can't protect themselves is the same in the military as it is in the fire service, Millard said, with the only difference being the weapon of choice.

"In the military, we have a rifle, but at the fire station I have a hose," Millard said.

"There's a lot of pride in it, too. It's a lifestyle you take pride from in the military, and you take pride in being a firefighter. A lot of that pride is what draws a lot of veterans."

Battalion Chief Bill Fant, 64, volunteered for the Army in December 1967 when it became clear he was going to be drafted. After spending one year in Vietnam as an infantry soldier and two more at Fort Sill in western Oklahoma, Fant said he was trying to decide what he wanted to do as a career. The fire department was attractive because of the benefits and community-service aspect, Fant said.

"I think I kind of liked the idea, it sounds kind of corny maybe, but of serving in the community," said Fant, who joined the department in 1973. "I grew up here all my life and everything. I'm pretty much a service-oriented-type person. I enjoy helping people, and I thought that would be a good way to do that."

Like Millard, Fant spoke of the sense of gratification that comes from helping people.

"It's a really good feeling whenever you know that you've helped someone in a time of need," Fant said. "It's just the gratification of being able to do something for someone."

Millard served with the 39th Infantry Brigade combat team on a protective service detail. His group would escort special guests of the military through Baghdad.

"I loved it because I got to go all over Iraq," Millard said.

Millard said he considers his colleagues in the fire and military services family.

"I think it's a combination of just the brotherhood, spending time with these guys and having fun doing the job we love," Millard said. "That's what makes it fun."

Fant said working with a group of people as closely as firefighters and soldiers do allows for those bonds to form.

"You really get to know the guys," he said. "You live with them for 24 hours at a time, and a lot of men do a lot of things together. It's like a big family, and you learn to get along with different people."

Millard said he thinks the Fort Smith Fire Department has been represented in every American conflict since the department was established in 1899. Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards said there are 26 active firefighters who served or are serving in the military. Although the two careers have a lot of similarities, there is one main difference, Richards said.

"We face dangers every day too as you would in the military, but nobody's shooting at us," Richards said.

While being careful not to place military veterans in the department above those who have never served in the military, he said, it's important to be as accommodating as possible for their deployments or training opportunities. Although he never served himself, Richards said he has learned from several veterans' families what their hardships are like.

"It's definitely a hardship on them and their families, and yet they do it willingly," Richards said. "They come back here and they give everything they have here, and we have to support that. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have the freedoms to do the things we do now."

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