PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. – Army Chaplain (1st Lt.) Justin Cowan said he knew the day he walked out his door in early June to see huge plumes of smoke -- the beginnings of the West Fork Complex fire -- there was a possibility the Colorado National Guard would be called to help his community.
Cowan, who also is the assistant principal at Pagosa Springs Middle School here, said most residents in his small town have never seen him in his uniform -- because he's never had to wear it at home.
As a chaplain now wearing his Army uniform in his community, Cowan has been going out to checkpoints and talking to soldiers and airmen assigned to the Colorado National Guard's Task Force-Security, checking up on their morale and emotional status.
He said his job is taking care of the troops while they take care of the community.
"Many of these Guard members were manning checkpoints on the Black Forest fire and have returned to duty here, leaving behind jobs and loved ones," Cowan said.
Cowan took along more than 16-dozen, home-baked cookies made by Melanie, his wife of 22 years.
"She loves to be a part of it any way she can," he said, noting the cookies "disappeared pretty fast."
Cowan said the first person he interacted with on-site was also a fellow local, Army Lt. Col. Jesse Morehouse, National Guard liaison officer to incident commanders at the West Fork Complex fire. Morehouse, a teacher at Pagosa Springs High School, was a familiar face for Cowan through both the school system and the National Guard.
After receiving a situational brief, Cowan began attending to the spiritual needs of the rest of the Guardsmen assigned across a four-county area in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. He conducted chapel services, led prayers, and visited with troops and community members.
"The morale is amazing," Cowan said. "These service members come out and do this job and are so happy to do it. It's very moving and does my heart good."
He attended a town meeting where a resident stood up and thanked all the agencies involved, and lastly pointed to Morehouse and said, "Especially that big guy in camouflage."
Cowan says the remark reflects the overall attitude he and his neighbors have of the Guard presence.
He also attributes his past experience teaching and his current position as assistant principal to making valuable contributions in his ability to be a chaplain, because both involve problem solving.
"In my profession you deal with many issues daily," he said. "You have to have a vision of your desired outcome in your head."