Military to Civilian - A pathway to success comes full circle

Beth Ipsen

The BLM Alaska Fire Service (AFS) enjoys a unique relationship with its military partners in Alaska that continues to grow thanks to shared connections. 

Most of AFS’s facilities have been based on the Fort Wainwright military installation in Fairbanks, Alaska since the 1970s. Plus, not only does AFS provide wildland fire management for U.S. Department of the Interior and Native Corporation lands in Alaska, but also for 1.6 million acres of military lands in interior Alaska. There is also an agreement between AFS and the U.S. Army Alaska to coordinate wildland fire management on military training lands. 

And most recently, AFS started collaborating with the Army to help soldiers transitioning to civilian life.  

Man and woman embraced for photo
AFS Executive Secretary Katrina Grates and her husband, Jon, pictured here at the Army Ball in 2018, both got jobs on Fort Wainwright after moving back to Fairbanks following Jon’s separation from the Army at Fort Hood, Texas in 2018. Through their experience with the Army’s help in moving from soldier to civilian life, and their jobs (Jon works at the post welcome center), Katrina initiated AFS’s involvement in the Fort Wainwright’s transitioning programs. Photo courtesy Katrina and Jon Grates.

Executive Secretary Katrina Grates, the wife of an Army veteran who recently went through these transitional programs, initiated the partnership. Recognizing the benefits for both participating soldiers and businesses, Grates connected with the Fort Wainwright’s Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program. This program is mandated by Congress to aid eligible soldiers in making a successful transition from military life to a civilian career. 

In February, Grates and AFS Associate Manager Kyle Cowan went to the first of weekly presentations for soldiers to talk about career opportunities at the BLM and Alaska Fire Service as part of the Soldier For Life program. Because Grates saw the benefits of a deeper alliance, she then spearheaded AFS’s involvement in the Army Career Skills Program that gives soldiers the opportunity to do internships at businesses during their final 180 days before separation.  

"Soldiers in this program are looking to gain experience outside of the military before separating, while AFS had vacancies that may take some time to fill," Grates said. "This was a way not only to help them gain experience, but also to fill those voids at AFS." 

Dan Schmitz, who is set to retire in January after more than 20 years in the Army, was the first to take advantage of the new partnership. He worked in a variety of positions throughout his military career and most recently as the first sergeant of A Company, 1-25 Aviation Regiment located directly across Ladd Airfield from AFS. He and his wife fell in love with the area after transferring to Fort Wainwright in 2016 and started making plans to stay after he retired. He heard about the CSP program and AFS by word of mouth and sought out an internship.  

“I mainly wanted to continue my government service and Alaska Fire Service has a lot of positions that interested me,” Schmitz said. “I feel that if I ever need to do something different, then I would be able to broaden myself within this organization.” 

Schmitz already knew he wanted to work in an administrative capacity. He already had a gameplan, which was helpful when he sat down with AFS Branch Chief of Business and Technology Aleshia Purcell for an interview to see if Schmitz and AFS were a good fit for each other.  

Turns out they were and on June 1, Schmitz began his internship. 

Because skills that service members garner throughout their careers transition well to federal public service, it’s no wonder one in five BLM employees are veterans. These similarities between federal and military service allowed Schmitz to quickly adapt to the AFS administrative tasks. Some challenges in access to programs provided Purcell an opportunity to develop a streamlined process for future recruitment. 

Since then, others have taken part of an internship through BLM – a budget technician is doing work for both AFS and the BLM Fairbanks District Office and a supply technician works at the AFS cache – with more in the works for the upcoming year. In addition, BLM has plans to participate in future Soldier for Life talks at Joint Base Elmendorf-Fort Richardson in Anchorage. 

Three people standing by Alaska Fire Service sign
BLM Alaska Fire Service Executive Secretary Katrina Grates, pictured on left, initiated AFS's participating in Army programs to help soldiers transition from military to civilian life that 20-year-Army veteran Dan Schmitz, pictured in middle, participated in that led to an internship and eventual permanent job at AFS. Schmitz worked as an intern under AFS Branch Chief of Business and Technology Aleshia Purcell, pictured on the right, who eventually hired him into a permanent administrative position at AFS. Photo by Beth Ipsen, BLM AFS

A few weeks ago, the process came full circle when Purcell and Schmitz teamed up for a Soldier for Life presentation to show a success story for other soldiers who are beginning their own journey to civilian life. 

Following the success of his internship, Purcell submitted paperwork to begin the process of hiring Schmitz as a permanent BLM employee, working in the department where he interned. His first day as an official BLM employee is Nov. 7.