War Heroes to Land Champions

Photo: Davon Goodwin

How specialized wildland fire crews help our nation’s public lands—and veterans like Davon Goodwin—find healing.

For decorated combat veteran Davon Goodwin (he/him), transitioning back to civilian life was all about finding a new purpose. After an injury ended his military career, he found himself listless and depressed, battling PTSD and other post-war issues. After much struggle, he felt he had finally found a new calling: fighting forest fires. What he didn’t realize was that joining a wildland fire crew would completely change his life—just as joining the military had.

Goodwin’s story starts back in 2007, when he first signed up for the U.S. Army. At the time, he was studying biology and botany at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and was looking for something to give his life a little more structure and discipline. So, Goodwin joined the Army Reserve and, without thinking much of it, put his name on the deployment list. 

Then, one day in class, his phone rang. 

“It just kept ringing. When I finally picked up, they said ‘Drop all your classes because you’re on schedule to deploy to Kuwait and Iraq,’” Goodwin recalls. He packed his things, put his college career on pause, and within a few weeks he was on a plane to the deserts of the Middle East.

At first, serving abroad felt fine. In Iraq, military operations had been slowing. Goodwin’s job was more or less to help hold down the fort. It felt like business as usual. “Then we got a notification that half our unit was going to get pushed into Afghanistan to help with the surge in 2009 and 2010,” says Goodwin, then a Private First Class, who was in the half that shipped out. Almost immediately, he says, “It became clear that this was a whole different theater of war.” Deployed to southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, attacks and bombings were far more common, and tensions had begun to rise. 

The Rift

On August 21, 2010, Goodwin was one of four soldiers riding in a heavy equipment transporter. Everything seemed normal, until suddenly, the whole vehicle shuddered and time seemed to slow: “The vehicle went over an IED, or an improvised explosive device,” he says, “and that changed the course of my life.” 

Goodwin doesn’t remember much of the explosion; he suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with memory lapses and narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder. He was discharged with honorable status and a Purple Heart for his service, but that’s not all he took home. PTSD and other post-war issues followed him around for the next two years. 

That’s when Goodwin stumbled upon the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nationwide environmental nonprofit that connects students, volunteers, and conservationists with fieldwork and training opportunities. In 2010, the SCA founded a wildland firefighting program with a simple mission: to train veterans in resource management and connect them with wildland fire crews in need of highly qualified personnel. 

At the time, Goodwin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do career-wise, but he was anxious to get back to his roots as a biologist, so he signed up for the SCA program. Before long, he was on his way to the Black Hills of South Dakota for basic training, where he was surprised by how easy it was to fall into the new routine. 

While the SCA’s Veterans Fire Corps is no longer running, many similar programs exist. The Bureau of Land Management has its own veteran fire crews, along with the Southwest Conservation Corps and the Southeast Conservation Corps. All of these provide veterans a pathway toward fulfilling civilian careers—which is exactly what Goodwin felt he needed. 

 Davon Goodwin working with SCA Photo: Davon Goodwin

A New Path

“The Forest Service trains like the military. They talk like the military. The structure is just like the military,” says Goodwin, who found comfort in a routine that felt familiar and reminded him of being back in the Army. On an even better note, he’d found himself among a group of like-minded people with similar experiences. Every night—both during training and later, while working to protect the forests around Flagstaff, Ariz.—the team would gather to cook or sit around a fire and share stories. 

“Being able to be vulnerable and tell your story is a big deal,” Goodwin says. For the first time, he felt like he was around people who really understood what he’d been through, which allowed him to build enough trust to open up. In a lot of ways, it was the first step to getting his life back. 

“I realized: ‘Well, shit happens, but when are you going to start living?’” he says. “You only have so much time on this earth. I didn’t want to spend my whole life fighting to get back to the Davon I left.” Instead, he had to accept the man he had become and learn how to move forward from there.

“Transition isn’t easy, no matter how you end your service,” Goodwin says. “But when it doesn’t end on your terms, you have to find a way to get back to some sense of normalcy. The SCA provided a way to do that.” 

On top of that, he found all the time outdoors extremely therapeutic. After being around so much destruction and death, the vibrancy of the natural landscapes in South Dakota and Arizona helped Goodwin relax—maybe for the first time in years. He even felt a sense of healing from working on a team, which helped him to cope with the devastating effects of the explosion. 

Embracing the Journey

Taking a moment to reflect, Goodwin says, “The day I got blown up, I lost my trust and faith in people.

“Working with the SCA,” he adds, “helped instill that trust back. It made me realize that at the end of the day, you’re only as good as the people around you. It’s all a journey. You don’t have to get there all at once, but if you can just have a little faith in the people around you, that goes a long way.” 

Goodwin went on to implement the takeaways from his journey into the work he does today, advocating for sustainability efforts, increasing amounts of local agriculture and food-access equity in North Carolina. He grows fruits and vegetables on Off the Land Farms, his 42-acre farm in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and he works with nonprofits and university organizations to help improve local food security. He also shares his love of the outdoors and good food by helping North Carolinians—especially Black Americans—reconnect with the land. 

When Goodwin compares his life before the wildland-firefighting program to his life now, he says the growth he’s experienced is sometimes hard to believe. 

“It’s night and day,” he says. “I’m not still who I want to be, but I’m a work in progress. I think the biggest thing I realized with the SCA is that no matter what we’re going through, we can do it all together. We all have a war story, even if we never went to war. We all have some shit that happened that was not supposed to happen.”

The biggest thing, Goodwin says, is the one question that those trying circumstances beg of us: “What are you going to do with it? Just because one fight is over, it doesn’t mean your work is done.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.