Veteran Chris Delplato wanted to be a firefighter for a long time.
"Ever since I was a little kid — [toy] truck and everything," Delplato says. But he only just got his dream job, after first joining the Navy and cruising around the Persian Gulf.
He was hired by New Jersey's North Hudson Fire Department, which brought on 43 veterans this year.
Employment for veterans of recent wars remains a stubborn problem, with the jobless rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes reaching double the national rate. Beyond just trying to find a job, many vets say after the military, they're still looking for a career with a sense of public service.
Delplato's fire chief, Frank Montagne, says he's looking to hire 10 to 20 more by the end of the year and into 2014. He says the vets are disciplined and skilled and their military background makes them well suited to the job, and the recruits say firefighting gives them the sense of camaraderie and purpose they miss.
"I've always wanted to do it. I've seen the brotherhood. Everyone [has] each other's backs, the camaraderie same as the military," says North Hudson rookie firefighter John Warth, a former Marine.
"It's the same way [as the military], we sit around and wait for things to happen. We sit around the table [and] discuss stories. It's definitely a family atmosphere like the military is," says Kamil Mizinski, a Navy vet and another rookie.
Battalion Chief Richard Hess says many of them really needed the job. "Some of them were having difficulty having jobs just like everybody else in this economy," he says. "Some of them had ... started working in careers that really weren't up to the expectation they had for ... what they want to do with their life."
Jaime Montes served six years in the Marine Corps. He did two Iraq tours as a combat engineer. Then he came home and got a job as an extruder operator at an adhesives factory, melting plastics into glue.
"You go from somewhere where you have this tremendous amount of responsibility and then you come home and you have a regular old, little job. It almost seems insignificant," he says.
Vets get preferential treatment for hiring in the fire department, but Montes still feels like he won the lottery — even if he's gone from a Marine sergeant to probationary firefighter — also known as a "probie."
"You start off right at the bottom, cleaning toilets and everything, washing dishes. I don't mind. I worked my way up once, I'll do it again," he says.
The "probies" are constantly training and testing on the hoses, the pumps, the engines and ladders. But these guys already fit in pretty well, and for most of them, they joined for the same reason they joined the military: for the camaraderie, the sense of public service and for the adventure. Mizinski, Warth and Delplato fought their first big fires this fall. Mizinski was on the roof of the burning apartment building, Warth was inside. Delplato was in a house fire so hot it melted the visor on his helmet.
"[I] was nervous. There was thick black smoke and flames shooting out the front door. Was hot, was very hot, and you couldn't see anything," Delplato says. "I wanted more. When they pulled us out I was like 'Let's go back in! Let's go back in!' Deputy chief pulled us out."
And Mizinski: "It gets a little dangerous, but we have lot of veteran firefighters that lead us in the right direction."
Warth says he loves knowing he's helping people in need. Plus, he says, "I think all military guys are adrenaline junkies. Now I'm putting it to good use."
Hess, the battalion chief, is also happy with the arrangement.
"As a department, we're just happy to get a good quality group of guys," he says. "At the same time, it's rewarding on our end to provide them a chance for a good occupation after what they've done for us."
And pretty soon, this group of veterans will become veteran firefighters.