How Veterans Can Find Law Enforcement Careers in the National Park Service

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Park rangers participating in joint law enforcement patrol operations. (National Park Service)

Marine Corps veteran John Craig was hiking in the Grand Canyon on his 30th birthday when he happened by a park ranger. The two didn’t exchange more than a glance, but a thought occurred to the Marine: “That person has the coolest job. They are getting paid to do what I am doing on vacation.”

That was the moment Craig first thought about becoming a law enforcement ranger after his military career.

It may come as a surprise that those Smokey Bear hats that park rangers are so well-known for aren’t the only hats worn by National Park Service (NPS) rangers -- literally or figuratively.

(The NPS does acknowledge that their iconic rangers’ hats are the most widely recognized symbol of the National Parks Service, so it’s an integral part of their dress uniforms. Like the U.S. military, their hats must always be worn outside. But unlike the military, they must also always wear them inside at ranger stations. After all, if you arrive at a ranger station, and the ranger isn’t wearing that hat, would you even feel like you were at a national park?)

Greg Shine is the Chief Ranger & Historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. But you wouldn't believe that unless he was wearing that hat. Probably. (National Park Service)

But an NPS park ranger does more than park conservation, and is trained in more than environmental science and history. Park rangers are also law enforcement officers -- and the gig could be perfect for transitioning veterans.

That’s because many veterans are uniquely prepared for the brand of law enforcement practiced by park rangers.

“It’s different from other law enforcement in a sense that we are Jacks of All Trades,” says Ranger Kayla Sanders. “Not only do we do law enforcement but we’re EMTs, we’re firefighters, we’re search and rescue and we do that day-in and day-out.”

Depending on their service career, some veterans like Ranger John Craig, can qualify directly for jobs in the National Park Service law enforcement ranger positions. Even if you don’t directly qualify, the NPS has a seasonal training academy for aspiring rangers, as well as their Law Enforcement Training Center.

Basic training for Park Ranger Law Enforcement Academy Training Programs (PRLEA) comprises 650 classroom training hours, medical drug and background screenings and a physical fitness test. After graduating from a PRLEA academy, you can apply to become a seasonal park ranger (most rangers are seasonal for 2-3 years before becoming a permanent employee.

Casey McCabe was a U.S. Army Communications Property Manager. She's now a ranger based in McLean, Virginia. (National Park Service)

There are six locations for aspiring rangers to take the PRLEA and the programs are linked below:

Colorado Northwestern Community College - Rangely, Colorado

Northern Arizona University - Flagstaff, Arizona

Skagit Valley College - Mount Vernon, Washington

Southwestern Community College - Franklin, North Carolina

Temple University - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Vermilion Community College - Ely, Minnesota

The PRLEA is an unusual basic training program in that attending one of these programs is at the cost of the student, not the Federal Government. Also, depending on where candidates attend their PRLEA, the training course can be combined with other general studies classes for a complete degree program.

While the PRLEA isn’t eligible for federal financial aid, it is covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill. For more information about any of the programs, contact the school’s aid or student affairs office.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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