Lab technician Richard Schmitt works hard, methodically cleaning up a 35-year-old set of field notes from an Army Corps of Engineers project on a river in Pennsylvania. The Navy veteran switches from a sponge to an eraser to remove the lingering adhesive from a tape protecting the document’s perforations.
“You can kind of see it. It’s just sticky,” he laughs. “It could potentially be acidic to the rest of the document.”
Elsewhere in the downtown St. Louis office, other veterans rummage through boxes filled with artifacts the Corps must document and maintain.
“I saw a lot of unique artifacts,” said Chris Miller, another Army vet and lab technician. “Lots of what people would call boulders – lots of boulders.”
Schmitt, Miller and other former service members serve in the Army Corps of Engineers Veterans Curation Program, which hires them for short-term jobs. They work with archives, artifacts and – sometimes – rare items like arrowheads and pottery remains. Each object must be weighed, labelled, photographed and cataloged in a database before being returned to a safe place.
It’s a vital part of what the Corps does, even if it’s not as well-known as their locks, dams and levees, said Sharon Knobbe, the Corps’ St. Louis District anthropologist.
“Whenever we find artifacts in the ground, we are forced to preserve them,” she said. “We really see ourselves as custodians of these objects. They tell the story of our nation.
The Corps has a lot to maintain: more than 50,000 cubic feet of archives and artifacts, Knobbe said. That’s enough material to completely fill about 21 shipping containers.
With so much to follow, the Corps developed the Veteran Curation Program, which Knobbe runs.
“It’s kind of a two-pronged deal,” she said. “We want to provide job skills to veterans as they rehabilitate these at-risk Army Corps of Engineers collections.”
Twice a year, the program brings a new generation of veterinarians to the St. Louis office for a five-month term. Body locations in Alexandria, Virginia; Augusta, Georgia; and San Mateo, California have similar permanent programs, while the program has temporary locations in Fayetteville, Arkansas and San Marcos, Texas.
Direct work with archives and historical objects is what attracted Matthew Hanks, who served as a Marine Corps combat engineer for four years.
“If I see something historic and it’s very well preserved, that makes me happy,” he said. “It means someone took the time rather than letting it go to waste.”
Hanks said preservation has always fulfilled him, even from a young age.
“I would catalog all my games and books and keep them in this nice box when I’m not using them,” he said. “I always checked to make sure the disc, the cartridges were clean before putting them back.”
After his time in the Corps, Hanks plans to return to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for a master’s degree in history and certification in museum studies. He said he would like to work at a museum in the Pacific Northwest.
But the program isn’t just for veterans like Hanks who want a career in conservation work.
“There are other jobs outside of that that deal with archives, sort of collections, paperwork,” Miller said. “Coming from an infantry background, I never thought that was possible for a grunt. That’s not what we were taught.
Miller served 10 years in the Army infantry, including three deployments to Iraq and one to South Korea. More recently, he worked as a truck driver and on river barges, but said his body could no longer handle those roles.
In the lab, Miller does less physical labor and gets coached on things like cover letters and resumes, he said.
“Before that, I had never dealt with a resume or anything,” he said. “I’ve always had high turnover jobs, so just walk in, apply and start working.”
Time spent on career or educational goals was also vital for Schmitt, who served six years as a boatswain in the Navy.
“When I came out, I was just in California,” he said. “I was more focused on finding what I was passionate about, which is a good thing, but I wasn’t focused on a long-term plan.”
The program’s short five-month duration — and the efforts of its managers to track each lab technician’s job applications — help it stay focused on its goals, Schmitt said.
“It’s a constant reminder of what I’m working on,” Schmitt said. “If I don’t have anything to show on the tracker, then I know I need to put in a bit more time.”
Since launching the veterans curation program in 2009, Knobbe said it has employed more than 700 lab technicians, and more than 90% of them have pursued full-time careers or furthered their education.
“Sorting rocks and doing data entry, it seems like that wouldn’t be important to developing your professional skills,” she said. “I think that lays the foundation.”
One example is Kimberly Blanke. She was a combat engineer in the Marine Corps Reserves before her stint as a lab technician about six years ago. Blanke now handles photography for the program in St. Louis.
“I know what it’s like to spin your tires and not know what you’re doing, and you need someone to guide you and get you on the right track,” she said. . “It’s really important for me to be able to give back to the people that I was in their place.”
And the support isn’t fleeting, even if current lab techs finish their time with the Army Corps within weeks, Knobbe said.
“You don’t just graduate,” she said. “We stay with people after the program.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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