Arizona parks program helps homeless veterans become rangers

Working as an Arizona State Park Ranger isn't just a job for Army veteran Carlos Garcia, it's a second chance.

Under a program the state launched in partnership with a host of public and private agencies to put homeless veterans to work, he is earning $12 an hour and living in a FEMA trailer. He is taking part in the Arizona Action Plan to End Homelessness Among Veterans, and he said it has changed his life.

“I was homeless,” Garcia said. “I was out of work for about two years and I had gotten into a little bit of trouble so this program boosted me, my morale -- it's just helped me out a lot. I'm glad to be working again.”

Garcia is one of four veterans participating in the pilot program that helps veterans get off the streets by making them park rangers. He currently works and lives at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, in Cottonwood.

Bryan Martyn, executive director of Arizona’s State Parks, and himself an Air Force veteran who flew special ops, said taxpayers get a good deal when the state hires veterans.

“I know the skill sets the veterans have," Martyn said. "I know they can do this job.”

Martyn himself was recently suspended for two weeks by state officials for another hiring practice - putting his three sons on the payroll as "temporary park specialists," a job which also pays $12 an hour, according to the Arizona Republic. One of Martyn’s sons was employed for a month, and the others worked for about two weeks before state personnel officials ordered they be terminated because the hiring violated the state’s employment-of-relatives statute. Martyn told investigators he did not know employing a family member violated state statute.

Martyn's boss, Gov. Jan Brewer, says helping veterans provide for themselves is the least taxpayers can do. Brewer started the wider program, and encouraged agencies like Martyn's to get involved.

"For far too long, homeless veterans have been deprived of the comforts and security that most of us take for granted — blessings, ironically, that they themselves faced injury and death to secure for their fellow citizens," Brewer wrote in a recent Op-Ed.

Martyn said he wanted to help homeless veterans after he heard a staggering statistic one morning.

"I was listening to the radio coming into work one day and there was a story about the suicide rate on veterans and the number was unbelievable – twenty-two a day. Twenty-two veterans a day were taking their lives and I had an exec staff meeting that morning and said, we gotta do something!” Martyn said.

“I'm trying to give these guys a skill, let them get their life back together, put something on your resume other than kicking in doors or driving tanks,” Martyn says. "We ensure that we work with the Veterans Administration and get these guys counseling services that are available and the VA has been great about providing follow-up and checking on them.”

So far, Garcia has saved money, lost twenty-five pounds and even reconnected with his family.

“Emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically - it's helped me out a lot. I'm grateful to be here and it's an awesome opportunity and a great experience,” Garcia said.