Iraq Vet Returns and Completes Fire Academy

Alexander Davis, Staff Writer

Long hours spent pulling ladders and handling high pressure hoses became manning a heavy duty machine gun atop an armored vehicle. Running laps through campus with fellow cadets was replaced with patrols through hostile territory.

Halfway through his training at the Verdugo Fire Academy on campus, cadet Carlos Saldana got the news. He was to drop everything, leave behind his 2 -year-old son and join his Marine reserve company for deployment to Iraq.

For Saldana, the rapid turnaround from Glendale to Iraq was something he had anticipated and prepared for.

“I was in the same mindset the whole time,” said Saldana. “In the academy and in the military it was all about following orders and getting things done the right way.”

Saldana, 28, joined the marine reserves in 2005 after graduating from John Marshall High School in Los Angeles. He signed up for the fire academy in 2008 after a fellow marine inspired him to pursue a career in firefighting.

He quickly saw success in the academy, earning the right to carry the flag during marches and drills. Instructors described him as quiet and polite, but motivated to do whatever it took to learn and train hard.

His plan was to complete the year-long Verdugo Fire Academy training and join his unit after graduation in 2009. When his unit was needed earlier than expected, his military obligation took precedence over his pursuit of a career in firefighting.

“It was very tough,” he said. “I knew it would be at least two more years before I was ready to return to work on my fire career.”

Academy Battalion Chief Tony Bagan, however, gave Saldana a unique opportunity. He extended an invitation for Saldana to return and complete his training where he left off. Such an offer was the first ever given to a fire cadet.

“I was proud of him,” Bagan said. “He was answering the call and protecting our freedom.” he said. “He deserved a chance to come back and

finish what he started.”

In Iraq, Saldana was assigned to a personal security detail for a battalion commander. A 4-vehicle convoy armed with mounted machine guns would escort the commander to meetings with local Sikhs. Saldana was the gunner for the commander’s vehicle.

War is something that Saldana does not want to talk about; however, he credits the military for helping him pursue his firefighting career.

“The military definitely prepared me to return to the academy,” he said.

Nearly 8,000 miles away from his home, Saldana’s thoughts were never far from the fire academy. The medic in his unit, Michael Campbell, worked for the Pasadena Fire Department and was good friends with Chief Bagan. Saldana spent his free time in the gym keeping in shape and often discussed firefighting with Campbell.

“Having Campbell around kept me motivated to finish what I started.” Saldana said.

Saldana’s strong connections with instructors at the fire academy, particularly instructor  Robert  Sepulveda, kept his passion alive. Growing up without a father, Saldana found that Sepulveda and other instructors were filling the place that had been missing for most of his life, even far from home.

“He didn’t have many opportunities to contact us, but he did whenever he got the chance,” Sepulveda said. “He called me on Father’s Day. That really meant a lot to me.”

After returning from Iraq, the hard work was just getting started.  Although he was able to begin where he left off, he was expected to be up to speed and ready to take his next exam within two weeks.

“You can imagine trying to cram six months’ worth of training in only two weeks,” he said.

For the two weeks leading up to the exam, Saldana worked tirelessly to catch up with the curriculum. Sepulveda went out of his way to stay extra hours and get Saldana up to speed on drills, tactics, and many other things needed for the exam.

“Sepulveda is a full time-firefighter.” Saldana said.  “He has a family. I am so thankful for the extra work he put into helping me.”

To complicate things even further, Saldana was involved in a motorcycle accident that badly bruised his tailbone. But the injury didn’t slow him down.

“Even if I wanted to quit, Sepulveda would never let me,” Saldana said. “He would never try to get me hurt, but he knew I could overcome it.”

Other cadets took notice of Saldana, particularly cadet Jesus Juarez, Saldana’s best friend.

“I was very thankful,” Juarez said. “He is a hero. He definitely left an impression on me.”

With the help of Sepulveda and encouragement from his peers, Saldana passed his exam, and went on to complete the academy.

“He was a sharp student,” said Chief Bagan. “I never had a doubt that he could get up to speed and do what he needed to do.”

Instructors at Verdugo Fire Academy are in the process of trying to get Saldana work for the academy.  He does not qualify to be an instructor because he has not yet had a job in a fire department yet. However he can still participate in training activities and is seen as a valuable asset to the academy.

For now Saldana’s main goal in life is to be a father and help out at the academy any chance he can get.