Office of External Affairs
Mountain-Prairie Region

U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
Mountain-Prairie Region
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228


For Immediate Release 
October 16, 2009

Fort Carson soldiers work, heal in wildlife



Contact: Leith Edgar: 303.236.4588; leith_edgar@fws.gov

FORT CARSON, Colo. – Paul Ellis was always infatuated with biology. After earning a Bachelor of Science with a double major in biology and criminal justice from Drury University, Mo., he put his biological love affair on hold to enlist in the Army – a decision that would later lead him back to his passion, albeit via a circuitous route.
Staff Sgt. Paul Ellis handles a black-tailed prairie dog
Fast forward to the present, Ellis is now a staff sergeant on active duty stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. However, thanks to an unlikely stint managing wildlife, he is all but certain that upon completion of a 20-year career in the Army, he will return to his first love: the biological sciences.
Ellis came to the decision that life after the Army would involve biology while working in the Fort Carson Wildlife Management Office (FCWMO). The vertical construction engineer came to wildlife management by way of Carson’s Warriors in Transition Unit (WTU) after sustaining injuries during his third combat tour of Iraq.

Carson’s WTU is but one of the Army’s 35 WTUs. Established in 2007, WTUs provide medical support to wounded soldiers who require a prolonged recovery involving rehabilitation. As part of his mission to heal, Ellis chose working for the FCWMO to see if field biology was in his future. More than 16 months later, he was hooked.

“I just volunteered out there every day when I didn’t have appointments. It gave me something to do and I got a lot of good field experience out of it,” said the 38-year-old Ellis. “I did a lot of surveys. It was great for me because I found out I do like doing it, so it’s going to be something I’m going to pursue when I get out of the Army.”

With more than seven years until retirement, Ellis is occupying the interim by taking his biological studies a step further. Currently, he is working on a Master’s in environmental management from Webster University, Mo.

“I picked biology in college. But you never know if you’re going to like what you picked until you do it,” said the self-described Army brat who was born in Louisiana. “I basically got a good year’s worth of field experience out of it and got paid. I didn’t have to do an internship.”

In Ellis’ case, participating in the wildlife management program for warriors in transition was a marriage made in nature. In fact, Ellis was the first of more than ten soldiers who have participated in the program at Carson to date. He also spent the most time, more than 16 months, in the program, said Rick Bunn, Carson’s senior wildlife biologist and Ellis’ program manager.

“He fit real well in our program. Like all the other soldiers who come here from the WTU, he was expected to basically follow our schedule. We have unusual hours and Paul was real good about that. Sometimes we start at six in the morning and work to six at night, or later sometimes. He was always willing to work with us,” said Bunn, who has approximately 20 years of experience managing wildlife across Carson’s 148,000 acres. “Everything that we do he participated in. He got a real broad introduction to wildlife science here.”

As a WTU augmentation to the wildlife office, Ellis worked on a plethora of projects. He helped protect his fellow soldiers from plague by surveying prairie dog populations using a global positioning system. He also partook in surveys of amphibians, dear and burrowing owls, which are a state-listed species. Ellis was one of a few people to spot the first swift fox on Carson. The swift fox is a sensitive species, which had never been documented on Fort Carson. But the highlight of Ellis’ 16-month tour with the wildlife office was the transplanting of prairie dogs from construction sites in El Paso County to Carson.

“Paul (Ellis) was very engaged in that project. That was probably his favorite project that he did. He put together different types of proposals and policy statements. He had some really good ideas of how to manage prairie dogs on Fort Carson,” Bunn said. “He could work not just as a tech (biological technician); he could be hired on as a wildlife biologist in this office.”

Handling prairie dogs is light years from what Ellis had been doing as an Army engineer. After Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off in 2003, Ellis completed combat tours in lengths of 12, three and eight months. During his first tour Ellis served with the 55th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. Then he joined the 10th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson. Over two tours of Iraq he worked with the unit’s engineer office to facilitate construction of projects the Special Forces teams needed. On his third tour Ellis was injured, joined the WTU and became the first soldier to work at the FCWMO.

HANDS ON, ON THE JOB

For Ellis working outside in nature was a rekindling of an old flame, namely biology.

“I couldn’t sit in an office. When you’re going out doing field research, it’s a lot different than sitting in a biology lab,” he said. “I’d like to continue to do field biology.

After his Army career ends, Ellis wants to become a field biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or another Federal wildlife management agency, he said.

Ellis’ passion for biology was evident in his work. Other biological technicians noticed Ellis’ natural wildlife management abilities. Tracy Perfors, a former coworker of Ellis and former FWS employee, said he mostly worked on projects solo.

“Paul (Ellis) could do whatever he needed to do all by himself. He was just a lot more independent because he did have a background,” said Perfors, a former biological technician, who spent four years in the Army before working for the FCWMO.

Some of the other soldiers, like Ellis, take advantage of the program’s hands-on, on-the-job training to segue into wildlife management careers, said April Estep, a current biological technician and FWS employee who worked with Ellis and six other soldiers for more than a year.

“It makes a difference when they come out with us. We can tell they enjoy it when they come to work. We’ve had several soldiers who left the program, retired from the Army and want to come back and volunteer. We know (some of them) are going to school now just to do what we do, or something similar in wildlife,” Estep said.

Unlike Ellis, not every WTU soldier who works for FCWMO has a biological science background. Nor do many of them intend to pursue a career in the field. But some interest in connecting with nature brings them to the program.

“Most soldiers like the outdoors. They might have hunting or fishing backgrounds, so they really enjoyed being outdoors,” Perfors said. “Usually they would have an interest; they would love to hear about why we’re doing what we’re doing; and how all this data will help in the end.”

The program aims to accommodate both the career-oriented participant and the soldiers just looking to spend some time outdoors, said Bunn, who was instrumental in getting the program started in the Fort Carson Wildlife Office.

“We get all different kinds of guys. Some of them just like to hunt and fish, and just want to be outdoors. And others are considering wildlife science as a career choice when they get out of the Army. We try to provide opportunities to fit those two different types of soldiers we get here,” Bunn said.
No matter a soldier’s intentions, he does assist the staff.  Reciprocity is a hallmark of the program. Soldiers are able to rehabilitate while they contribute to wildlife management at their duty station.

“They might not have the science, but they have the wilderness experience to really be a help,” said Perfors. “For any kind of wildlife management, you have to be a field worker, so you have to be able to take care of yourself out in the middle of nowhere, and change a tire – all that kind of stuff. It’s not really the science, but it’s still a huge part of the job. They were all great at that. That’s not really all that different than what you do when you’re out doing a road march as a soldier.”

THE ABSENCE OF STRESSORS

Two separate but equal missions govern the WTU soldiers assigned to the program and the FCWMO staff members who lead them. While the WTU soldiers’ charge is to heal, the staff members ensure the work environment is anything but stressful.

“These soldiers have a lot on their plate when they’re coming back from a deployment: they’ve been injured, they’ve been away from their families for months and months and it’s just a lot to deal with. We just provide them an environment where they can go out, do some work and kind of relearn how the civilian world works – just not have to deal with as much stress as most of the other soldiers who are still with their units,” said Perfors, who deployed twice to Iraq. “It’s definitely good to have a place where you can just cool down.”

Some of the soldiers find solace in just showing up to work in the outdoors every morning. Returning to nature benefits those who grew up with an appreciation for the outdoors the most, Bunn said.

“I think some of these guys grew up hunting and fishing. That’s kind of been their family background. I think being outside and working with wildlife is something that’s familiar to them. It also provides an opportunity for them to do something that’s not that demanding of them. And it’s something they enjoy,” Bunn said.

Up to four soldiers can participate in the program at a time. Typically, soldiers who participate are mid-level noncommissioned officers who’ve served for at least a few years. They work from one to nine hours per day and for periods of one week to several months. Work days start as early as 6 a.m. and usually run to 3:30 p.m. or sometimes later.

Part of the program’s cathartic quality is that it reintroduces the soldiers to working with people out of uniform in a less rigid and stressful environment, said  Erin Barks, a current biological technician and FWS employee, who has worked with three soldiers during her six months on the job.
“It’s an opportunity for them to get out with people who’re not in the Army. We do a variety of things, so it gives them something else to think about when they’re transitioning,” Barks said.

Sometimes a distraction from their wounds is just what the doctor ordered. The program’s staff occupies the soldiers time with oodles of projects: from mapping prairie dog colonies to conducting grassland bird surveys, installing wildlife water containment units to tagging dear, and everything in between – the soldiers stay busy.

“Our goal is to get them back involved in a working environment to take some of the stress levels off of them.” Estep said. “I think it’s beneficial to the soldier; it definitely helps them get back into a more natural setting. Part of what they’re learning is how to work, but not with an Army mindset.”

The staff does its best to keep the focus on the tasks at hand and off the conditions which brought the soldier to the wildlife.

“We don’t get to know them on a personal level. Usually, we don’t know what their problems are. We just take them out, show them what they do and put them to work,” Estep said. “To us they’re a person who’s ready to work.”

However, sometimes the close collaboration on work does forge a bond between the staff members and the wounded warriors. In Ellis’ case, he and Bunn developed a friendship over the 16 months they worked with one another. Although Ellis is now in Missouri, the two still keep in touch via text messaging. Bunn plans to visit Ellis at his new duty station soon.

NATURAL SUPPORT

Soldiers working for the program discuss their injuries as little or as much as they wish. The staff just listens.

“Generally, we don’t ask them a lot of questions about what they came from. If they volunteer, we’ll talk about it with them. We generally just take them for who they are, and try to help them with what they want to do. We don’t go into their personal lives or pasts,” Bunn said. “We provide a supportive environment. That’s the main point of us doing this. It’s not really to help us, although they do, they do provide a service to us. But that’s not the reason we do it.”

The reason the staff works with the WTU soldiers is to assist in their recoveries. Ellis is one example of a program participant who benefitted from the supportive work environment. Over his 16 months in the program Ellis noticed a shift in his perspective.

“I guess I regained an interest in life again. At the time I was going through the actions of life and not really living it,” said the married father of three girls. “It was a good job and I had enough alone time that I could decompress.”

Ellis is a career soldier with more than 12 years of experience. After three tours of Iraq, the stressors of a military career during a time of war were starting to get the better of him. Not to mention his combat wounds. He credits the program with returning some normalcy to his life.

“It was definitely a different thing. It gives you a little time to get back in touch with yourself and not have to worry about everything else that’s going on,” Ellis said.
The time Ellis spent in the program is paying dividends. He continued his Army career after sustaining and then recovering from career threatening injuries. He is now assigned to the Fort Leonard Wood NCO Academy in Missouri where he lives happily with his wife and daughters.

Allowing the soldiers to open up when the time was right for them is what Perfors said makes the program so effective.

“A lot of them did start talking about this or that. If they did, I would just listen – just let them talk. When you’re holding everything in you’re not really getting better or changing your perspective on anything. When you talk it’s a good chance for you to kind of get things straight in your head about the struggles and everything you’ve overcome,” said Perfors, who knows firsthand how hard transitioning from deployments can be and wishes the program had been available to her when she was transitioning. “Whenever a soldier would talk, I took that as a sign we were being good at being supportive (because) they felt comfortable talking to us.”

More than ten soldiers have taken advantage of the Carson program to date with more to follow. Although biology and wildlife management are not substitutes for traditional armchair therapy, working out in nature with a supportive staff has done wonders for Ellis, and other wounded warriors.

“They know when they’re here that the people in this office will provide anything they need,” Bunn said. “It’s an emotional support. There’s not much else we can do. We’re not medical people and we’re not trained psychologists or anything like that. We’re just biologists. But the people in here, I think, have a true empathy for what’s going on. You can’t work on an Army base and not.”

The program is a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Fort Carson Wildlife Management Office.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

 - FWS -

A photo of Staff Sgt. Paul Ellis holding a black-tailed prairie dog is available upon request. Please direct requests to the person listed as the contact.

Last updated: October 16, 2009