PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. – First Lt. Justin Cowan, chaplain, 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
First Lt. Justin Cowan, chaplain, visits with 117th Space Battalion Guard members in the area of West Fork Complex fire Colorado National Guard operations June 30, 2013. (Photo by Army National Guard Spc.
Cowan, who is also the assistant principal 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
“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
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.
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
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.”
By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jecca Geffre
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