Oscar Torres, a former Marine sergeant, last week found himself photographing an ancient stone-cutting tool -- one of many artifacts within the vast collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which stores such items when they're uncovered in the course of construction projects across the country.
"We have stuff here as old as Roman stuff" from well before the Europeans came to what was "terra incognita" to them in America, said Torres, who was at work last week at the USACE Veterans Curation Program (VCP) office in Alexandria, Virginia.
"My mind was blown when I first arrived here" by the opportunity to preserve history, he said.
Torres is one of 12 veterans who began at the VCP in Alexandria under five-month contracts that provide 40-hour week salaried employment and a chance for them to pick up skills while deciding whether to go back to school or pursue full-time jobs. Thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, some of these vets may just find their future lies in the past.
"Whatever they throw at us, we're going to do," said Torres, who came to the Marines from Colombia by way of the Bronx and is now a U.S. citizen.
Former Navy Seaman Nephthali Rodriguez, originally from Penuelas, Puerto Rico, was examining and cataloguing a tiny, intricate bowl uncovered in a USACE dam project.
"It's important to be as accurate as we can" in describing the object, and where and when it was found, for future researchers, he said.
The chance to be with other veterans during transition while drawing a salary for at least five months was one of the main attractions of the VCP program, Rodriguez said.
"It's like a support group," he said.
Unlike most other veterans transition and jobs programs, VCP gives veterans employment and a chance to adjust while making future career decisions, said Kevin Bradley, the lab manager for the Alexandria site.
Under VCP, "they have five months to get their lives together -- figure out what they want to do," Bradley said.
Three hours out of the 40-hour week are devoted to counseling and training on working up resumes and preparing for job interviews, he said.
The veterans cohort at the Alexandria VCP was down from 12 to 11 on July 18, when Military.com visited. One of them had already found a permanent job, according to Bradley.
VCP was set up in 2008 and 2009 by legendary archaeologist and forensics specialist Dr. Michael "Sonny" Trimble, who headed the Mass Graves Inspection Team in Iraq that led to the convictions of former members of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The VCP's work was extended in 2016 under H.R. 3117, sponsored by Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, and signed into law by then-President Barack Obama.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, then-chairman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, said in backing the bill that the VCP "is one of those opportunities where veterans and members of our military are hired to assist with valuable artifacts found during the construction or management of projects by the Corps of Engineers."
"These veterans also gain other tangible skills, such as computer database management, photographic and scanning techniques, and computer software proficiency, as well as knowledge and training in archaeology and history," Inhofe said.
VCP programs currently are in operation at centers in Alexandria; Augusta, Georgia; and St. Louis, Missouri; and at satellite locations in San Francisco and Tempe, Arizona.
The overall program is managed by New South Associates of Georgia, a women-owned small business that specializes in the management of cultural resources.
Jasmine Heckman, the project manager at the Alexandria lab, said that 602 veterans have participated in the VCP thus far, and about 90% of them have gone on to higher education or full-time jobs.
"We've never had anybody quit because of the subject matter," Heckman said of the VCP program. Some of the veterans move on to jobs in fields they trained on at the VCP, such as digital photography, she said.
A side benefit of the program is that "we're building ambassadors of archaeology and cultural preservation" for the future, she added.
However, "We're not here to make [the veterans] archaeologists, we're here to help get them to the next part of their lives," said Jennifer Riordan, whose full title at the USACE St. Louis district is director of the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections.
"We had a lot of collections that weren't up to federal standards" under the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native Americans Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Riordan said.
Congress' action in 2016 to continue the VCP program provided about $4 million in funding for upgrading USACE collections, which are believed to be the nation's second largest after the Smithsonian Institution, she said.
The collections were the offshoot of the stated mission of USACE to "deliver vital public and military engineering services" while maintaining 300 commercial harbors and 12,000 miles of navigable waterways, and also undertaking numerous public works projects, such as assisting in the effort to restore the electric grid in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
In their archival work, the veterans of today's wars occasionally are engaged in documenting and cataloguing the artifacts of wars past.
Some of the artifacts on display at Alexandria last week were from Pea Patch Island, once the site of Fort Delaware in the Delaware River about 33 miles south of Philadelphia.
The fort was originally built to prevent British from coming up the river to Philadelphia during the War of 1812 and was later used by Union troops to house Confederate prisoners from the Civil War, including some from the battle of Gettysburg, Bradley said. The site was also used to garrison U.S. troops during World Wars I and II.
The artifacts recovered from Fort Delaware included ceramics and shards of pottery from what Bradley called the "Woodland Era" prior to European contact with America, as well as the everyday items used by Union and Confederate troops. The items included pipes smoked by the troops, including one with a bowl shaped in the likeness of Union Gen. U.S. Grant.
Former Army Spc. Jasmine Flores, one of the VCP veterans at the Alexandria site, marvelled at the potential for storytelling that rested in the cardboard boxes of artifacts that have yet to be documented in the USACE collections.
Flores, a public affairs and photojournalism specialist whose husband remains in the Army, said she is unsure as yet how she will use what she has learned from the VCP, but her future will definitely involve telling stories.
"This is right up my alley," she said.
More information on the VCP and how to apply can be found at its website.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.