Combining a passion for the environment with a family tradition of military service, United States Army veteran Lew Sovocool ’04 now spends his time training veterans to become wildland firefighters.
Originally from Madison, Alabama, Sovocool came to Cornell with a four-year Reserved Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. After he studied applied economics and management, Sovocool pursued his interest in the environment, following the department’s environmental and resource economics track.
Although ROTC was a demanding program, Sovocool said he still had time to pursue his interests and joined Greek life.
“It was a time-consuming extracurricular, but still afforded me opportunities to be a normal college student,” Sovocool said.
Sovocool, who had done various conservation work in college, enjoyed working outdoors and wanted to continue his involvement in environmental work.
Now, this fourth-generation Cornellian helps veterans adjust to civilian life through his work with the Southwest Conservation Corps and Veterans Green Corps in Durango, Colorado.
Sovocool said that due to a lack of specific industry experience, some veterans face difficulties when trying to find employment at home.
“That’s what drives me in this role I have now. Trying to help other veterans transition,” Sovocool said.
In addition to providing veterans with training, the corps also works closely with local fire crews to respond and assist when needed. Additional responsibilities include working on fire mitigation and fuel reduction initiatives.
“This definitely is not a job that is ever going to make me rich, but I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I’m doing something good for these guys,” Sovocool said.
Sovocool stumbled upon the veterans program after being stationed in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for five years. During his five year service in the Army, Sovocool served two tours in Iraq and an individual deployment in Afghanistan.
At Fort Leonard Wood in October 2004, Sovocool entered basic officer training to become an Army engineer. He then worked as a basic training executive officer before deploying to Bagdad, Iraq, in June 2006. As the platoon leader with the 5th Engineers Battalion, Sovocool’s main responsibility was route clearance, scanning the roadways for improvised exploding devices.
As a platoon leader, Sovocool enjoyed working with the troops. He said the experience was important for his leadership development.
“Few other scenarios could really equal the leadership exposure that you have when you lead troops into combat. There’s something about that that I’ll always remember,” Sovocool said.
After spending four months in Iraq, Sovocool returned to Fort Leonard Wood and shortly began a new position as the company’s executive officer. In this role, Sovocool managed the transition of property and personnel as the Army went through modularization — making each company self-sufficient and able to deploy alone.
Taking on more of a human resources role, Sovocool became the Battalion Personnel Officer, handling administration issues including evaluations, awards and promotions.
Shortly after beginning this position, Sovocool again deployed to Iraq in May 2008. This time stationed in the city of Balad, he was heavily involved with accountability personnel, tracking the whereabouts of each soldier in his area.
When the opportunity arose to deploy to Afghanistan straight from Iraq, Sovocool chose to join the Combined Security Transition Command — Afghanistan. In this position, he worked to build up, train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
Working primarily in the engineering directorate as the program manager for the Afghan National Army Facility Sustainment Program, Sovocool was also responsible for the building and maintenance of more than 45 facilities across the country. With a $200 million budget, projects included managing power plants, power distribution, well drilling, water distribution systems and waste treatment facilities.
“I was the guy with all the money,” Sovocool said. “I would prioritize all the projects and make decisions about what would be built or maintained.”
Shortly after returning to Fort Leonard Wood in September 2009, Sovocool began the process of separating from the Army and is now part of the Inactive Ready Reserve.
While Sovocool now spends his time in Colorado working with veterans and enjoying the outdoors, he said he appreciates the training and leadership experience that the Army gave him at a very early age.
“Fortunately, in every job I had in the Army I was surrounded by really good people who were able to carry me at the beginning,” he said.