Call to Arms Puts California Firefighter's Training on Hold

Posted: 06-08-2008
Updated: 06-09-2008 10:11:35 AM

DEBORAH SCHOCH, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Carlos Saldana spent Friday morning hoisting ladders and lugging heavy hoses in front of a trio of sharp-eyed firefighting instructors. Seven hours later, he exchanged his firefighting gear for a U.S. Marine Corps reserve uniform and began training for deployment to Iraq.

The fast career turnaround was possible thanks to Verdugo Fire Academy officials, instructors and fellow cadets who organized an unusual solo exam so that Saldana could complete mid-terms before reporting for reserve training Friday evening. The other 22 cadets in his class took mid-terms Saturday as scheduled.

Saldana, 23, of Los Angeles passed his exams. But what impressed academy leaders most were his commitment and mental stamina.

"What blows me away is for him to go through all that hard work. He's going to war. These kids are babies. They must be scared," said Sam DiGiovanna, academy training chief. "This, to me, proves he's going to be a firefighter."

Saldana, a graduate of John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, enlisted in the Marine reserves in January 2005 and expects to be deployed overseas in 2009. When he decided to become a firefighter, his Marine supervisors gave him permission to start the academy in January. While working for a security firm in Beverly Hills, he trained Thursday nights and for two 12-hour days each weekend.

Ordinarily, Saldana would have finished classes this December and graduated in January 2009. However, last month he learned that his reserve unit would head to Iraq in September. This meant he had to begin Marine training this weekend.

He worried that when he returned home, he would have to take the classes over.

When academy officials heard about the change, they decided to help Saldana. If he could pass the mid-term, a critical phase of firefighting training would be behind him.

"He's going from serving his community to serving his country," DiGiovanna said.

"He's a good kid," said instructor Mike McGee, a retired Glendale fire engineer. "Carlos is really good in that when he does something, he's very attentive, he's listening and watching. He's picking up on it."

McGee and two other instructors volunteered to work Friday, their day off, to administer the four-hour solo exam in seven key skills, such as handling three kinds of ladders, assembling and operating a chain saw and using hoses. Glendale firefighters stood by with two fire trucks, and three other cadets were there to move equipment, wrap up hoses and cheer Saldana on.

The testing was arduous, especially because Saldana was wearing his heavy coat, pants, boots, gloves and head gear on a warm June day.

"The instructors were telling me to drink water every five minutes. Since I was the only one testing, the heat was on me," he recalled Saturday in a telephone interview from a Marine training site in Pasadena.

In the end, Saldana passed.

"He'll be welcome back next year," McGee said. "With a little bit of practice, he'll be back to where he was."

Saldana said Saturday that he is grateful and relieved.

"I'm overwhelmed by all the help. I can't thank them enough," he said. "I'm putting this on pause. But I'll be back."

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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