WTU Soldiers work, heal in wildlife program
FORT CARSON, Colo.-Staff Sgt. Paul Ellis handles a black-tailed prairie dog Feb. 29 as part of an effort to trap and relocate the species on Fort Carson. Ellis, then a vertical construction engineer with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), worked in the Fort Carson Wildlife Management Office for more than 16 months as part of his treatment program. He was assigned to Carson's Warriors Transition Unit after sustaining injuries during his third tour of Iraq. (photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

FORT CARSON, Colo.-Staff Sgt. Paul Ellis was always interested in biology. After earning a Bachelor of Science with a double major in biology and criminal justice from Drury University, Mo., he put his love of biology on hold and enlisted in the Army. That decision that would later lead him back to his interest. On his third deployment to Iraq, second with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) as a military engineer, Ellis was shipped back to Fort Carson to recover from injuries he sustained. He was assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit. During his recovery, he volunteered with the Fort Carson Wildlife Management Office. "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 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." Ellis was the first of more than 10 Soldiers who have participated in the wildlife management 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," said Bunn. "Everything that we do he participated in. He got a real broad introduction to wildlife science here." Ellis worked on a variety of projects. He helped protect fellow Soldiers from plague by surveying prairie dog populations. Prairie dogs often harbor fleas, which can spread the plague virus to humans. He also worked on surveys of amphibians, deer and burrowing owls. Ellis was one of a few people to spot the first swift fox on Fort Carson. The swift fox is a sensitive species, which had never been documented on the installation. But Ellis said the highlight of his 16-month tour with the wildlife office was the transplanting of prairie dogs from construction sites in El Paso County to Fort Carson. "Paul was very engaged in that project. 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." Some of the 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 biological technician and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who worked with Ellis and six other Soldiers for more than a year. 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. "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 Tracy Perfors, former FWS employee who worked with Ellis and who had also deployed twice to Iraq. 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. 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," Bunn said. "We provide a supportive environment. That's the main point of us doing this" 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 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 Ellis, a married father of three girls. "It was a good job and I had enough alone time that I could decompress." The time Ellis spent in the program is paying dividends. He has continued his Army career after sustaining and then recovering from career-threatening injuries and is assigned to the Fort Leonard Wood Noncommissioned Officer Academy in Missouri. He is also working on a Master's in environmental management from Webster University, Mo. 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." (This story was provided to the US Army by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a joint project FWS and Fort Carson are currently engaged in)

Page last updated Fri October 30th, 2009 at 17:49