Part 3 in a 4-part series
Chaplain (1st Lt.) Justin Cowan said he knew the day he walked out his door in early June to see huge plumes of smoke – the beginnings of the West Fork Complex fire – there was a possibility the Colorado National Guard would be called to help his community.
Cowan, who is also the assistant principle at Pagosa Springs Middle School, said most residents in his small town have never seen him in his uniform – because he’s never had to wear it at home.
As a chaplain now wearing his Army combat uniform in his community, he’s been going out to checkpoints and talking to Soldiers and Airmen assigned to Colorado National Guard’s Task Force-Security, checking up on their on their morale and emotional status. He says his job is to take care of troops while they take care of the community.
“Many of these Guard members were manning checkpoints on the Black Forest fire and have returned to duty here, leaving behind jobs and loved ones, and they’re under stresses of their own,” he said. “We try to exercise the right of religion and keep a sense of the sacred wherever we’re stationed.”
Cowan also had a soothing ally along with him: more than 16 dozen home-baked cookies made by his wife of 22 years, Melanie.
“She loves to be a part of it any way she can,” he said, adding that despite the large amount, the cookies “disappeared pretty fast.”
Cowan said the first person he interacted with on site was also a fellow local, Lt. Col. Jesse Morehouse, National Guard liaison officer to incident commanders at West Fork Complex fire. Morehouse, a teacher at Pagosa Springs High School, was a familiar face for Cowan through both the school system and the National Guard.
After receiving a situational brief, Cowan began attending to the spiritual needs of the rest of the Guardsmen assigned across a four-county area in the southwestern Colorado mountains. He conducted chapel services, led prayers, and visited with troops and community members alike.
“The morale is amazing,” Cowan said. “These service members come out and do this job and are so happy to do it. It’s very moving and does my heart good.”
He attended a town meeting where a resident stood up and thanked all the agencies involved, and lastly pointed to Morehouse and said, “especially that big guy in camouflage.”
Cowan says the remark reflects the overall attitude he and his neighbors have of the Guard presence.
He also attributes his past experience teaching and his current position as assistant principal to making valuable contributions to his ability to be a chaplain, because both involve problem solving.
“In my profession you deal with many issues daily,” he said. “You have to have a vision of your desired outcome in your head.”
Cowan said there is great value in local Guard members being involved in an emergency response to their hometown areas because they possess an intimate knowledge of both the physical and human terrain.
“As a local with my own area being affected, it makes me feel like everything is going to be ok and we’ll get through it,” he said.
“It’s different down here from Denver and the Front Range,” he said. “We don’t see a lot of Guardsmen here in such a rural, mountainous area. Most people associate Colorado with Denver and the Front Range. This response really makes us feel safe and like the entire state really cares about the people here.”
All stories in this series:
A complex fire: Colo. Guardsman makes good on oath to help hometown in midst of crisis
A complex fire: Colo. Guard firefighters hop from single to triple threat
A complex fire: A complex fire: Chaplain duties hit home for Colo. Guard clergyman
A complex fire: Colo. Guardsmen provide mapping, muscle, mentorship in Rocky Mountains