A Shield From the Flames

When specialist Milos Vujicic joined the Colorado National Guard, he thought he’d be a medic or a police officer. The Recruiter suggested firefighting, and Vujicic loved the idea. He’s been called to fight fires three times over the past two years. And each time, he’s set his nerves aside and put his training to work. Here’s what he had to say about coming to America, joining the Army National Guard, and becoming a 12M Firefighter.

SPC Milos Vijicic

More than three months after a raging wildfire scorched the Black Forest, near Colorado Springs, Colo., SPC Milos Vucjicic stands among some of the new growth in the devastated woodland area. More than 450 firefighters from multiple agencies and jurisdictions fought the blaze that burned 14,000 acres in June 2013.

I was born and raised in Serbia. The first time I came to America was 2007. I flew from Germany to Denver, and I remember the airport in Denver looked like a tent. I flew from there to Anchorage, and I spent a summer in Alaska working at a resort. I fell in love with America and the way of life here. I love the freedom. I love the opportunity. If you work hard, it pays off. You don’t have to worry about, “Do I know somebody, or does somebody know me?”

Back home, there’s a lot of corruption. If you want to get a job, you have to know somebody, or pay somebody, to get one. Here, if you have credentials, they hire you. Once you get a job, if people see that you work hard and know what you’re doing, you can get a better position and better pay. That’s how I was raised. That’s what my parents taught me.

After that summer in Alaska, I eventually moved to the United States. I chose Colorado because I had a friend here. As soon as I got my green card, I joined the National Guard because I wanted to give back to this country that I fell in love with.

I remember talking to a drill sergeant about being deployed so many times. He talked about how fortunate we are to be where we are. That reminded me of my own story, and how fortunate I am to be where I am. It reminded me not to take anything for granted.

High Park Fire, 2012

The High Park fire in north-central Colorado was the second largest and second-most destructive fire in state history, burning more than 87,000 acres.

I was coming back from vacation in California when my unit first went to the High Park fire. Specialist Duran Cornelius texted me something like, “Oh, man, you should’ve been here.” I called my commander, at the time, Warrant Officer 1 John Buchanan, now a chief warrant officer 2. I said, “Sir, I want to help fight this fire. Whatever you guys need.”

That first fire, I was in support. I helped provide the firefighters with water. I positioned the trucks in designated areas. I assisted putting out a few hot spots. I learned a lot, about the language of fighting fires and about how weather changes a fire. I spent a lot of time with First Sergeant John Schreiber. He’s like a book full of firefighting information. However much you want to ask of him, that’s how much you can learn.

West Fork Complex Fire, 2013

This blaze in the southwestern mountains affected four counties.

One day, I was driving a fire truck with Specialist Joseph Holliway. We were looking for hot spots. I saw a police officer. He said, “Do you see that black smoke over there?” I looked where he was pointing and saw thick smoke. So I hauled over there.

I was new to the unit and still learning how to maneuver the truck. I was full of adrenaline already, and now I had to squeeze the fire truck into a really narrow spot. We were on our way to a fire so I wanted to do everything fast. But I had to stay calm and not hurt anybody or myself or damage the equipment.

My first sergeant was watching. I felt like I had to prove myself. I thought back to one of my instructors in fire school. He said that when you look at a duck gliding across the water, you think it’s smooth and effortless. But underneath, his feet are paddling like crazy. That’s how firefighters have to do their jobs—calm on the outside, but inside, your heart is beating as fast as a duck’s feet.

I made it. I didn’t hit a tree or anything. I parked the truck, and Specialist Holliway grabbed the bumper turret and sprayed the plastic fire with foam and water. It was an intense fire. Burning plastic is sometimes harder than anything else to put out.

Black Forest Fire, 2013

The most devastating in Colorado history in terms of structural damage, the fire near Colorado Springs destroyed more than 500 homes.

Another time, specialist Ryan Hawley, specialist Evan Rose and I arrived at a garage fire. The house next to it was in danger.

Your adrenaline went up, but you had to stay calm. You have to be aware of what was going around you, and not just for you, for your buddy, too—in this case, Specialist Hawley. He was my second set of eyes, and I was his.

When an intense fire like this one gets into the trees, it burns everything in its way. There’s nothing you can do. Not even those big choppers can do anything. So you go ahead of it and try to salvage stuff there. That’s what we did at the garage fire—we tried to save the house.

I stood 20 or 30 feet from the garage. I couldn’t get much closer—the fire burned intensely. A helmet and mask covered my face. Even with my gear—boots, gloves, pants, and shirt—I could feel the heat. I heard popping come from the garage. I don’t know what it was—paint or propane, maybe. For 20, 30 minutes, we sprayed the fire, trying to keep the flames and heat away from the house.

We were trying to keep the fire in the garage and away from the house. We didn’t want the heat to spread to the house and combust it, so while we sprayed the garage, we also tried to cool the house. We pushed the walls of the garage, too, so when they fell they fell away from the house—and away from us.

The garage totally burned out—there was nothing we could do about that.

But we saved the house.

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Behind the Scenes in Sochi

As promised, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at Army National Guard athletes Preston Griffall and Matthew Mortensen, and their coach, William Tavares, as they prepared for the luge doubles event this week at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (photos courtesy of U.S. Army IMCOM).

From all of us at On Your Guard – congratulations on a job well done!

SSG William Tavares

SSG William Tavares walks the luge track before race day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Press conference
SGTs Mortensen and Griffall answered questions at a press conference on Monday, two days before their event.
Practice run

They also did some practice runs on Monday.

Before the first run

Coach Tavares offers SGTs Griffall and Mortensen some final words of encouragement before their first run.

First run on race day

Rounding a curve in their first run of Olympic luge doubles at Sanki Sliding Center on Feb. 12 ... their two-run combined time was 1:41:703 and they finished in 14th place.

 

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Race Week for Team National Guard

Did you know that luge doubles partners don’t talk at all as they fly down the track at 87+ mph? Or that luge is one of the most competitively timed sports in the world, with a race clock that captures the finish down to the thousandth of a second? Or that luge coaches actually construct their teams’ racing sleds?

(l to r) SGT Preston Griffall, SSG William Tavares, SGT Matthew Mortensen

(l to r) SGT Preston Griffall, SSG William Tavares, SGT Matthew Mortensen

On Your Guard spoke with luge doubles team, SGT Preston Griffall and SGT Matt Mortensen, and their coach, SSG William Tavares,  to learn these and other fascinating facts about the sport and what it’s like to be a Citizen-Soldier® athlete. This week, they’ve been fine-tuning their sled and racing technique in Sochi, Russia, in preparation for the men’s doubles competition tomorrow at the 2014 Winter Games.

Here’s what else they had to say about the Army National Guard, luge, and the Olympics …

When did you join the Army National Guard and why?

Griffall: I joined in May 2010 after talking extensively with SSG Tavares. It sounded like a great opportunity for me to continue to pursue my athletic career while serving my country.

Mortensen: I joined in February 2010 as a means to go to school and bring some financial stability to my life.

Tavares: I joined in August 1982 right out of high school. I had scholarships, but I wanted to join the Army. I chose the National Guard so that I could continue to go to school. That was the deal (made with his parents).

 

What is your MOS?

Griffall: My MOS is 42A Human Resources Specialist. I chose it because I thought it would be a useful skill to have after serving in the National Guard.

Mortensen: My MOS is 12R Interior Electrician. I chose 12R because I was already pretty knowledgeable with construction, but I did not know too much about electricity. I figured it would benefit me in the long run.

Tavares: Originally, I joined the Guard as a 57N Helicopter Mechanic (now part of the 15 series). The plan at the time was to go to flight school. Then I started luge in 1985, basically off a bet (which changed the course of his future). Today, my MOS is 11B Infantryman – Management Training.

 

It’s not like there’s a luge track on every corner. How and when did you get involved in the sport?

Griffall: I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, so it was a bit easier for me to get involved in winter sports than a lot of my teammates. I grew up skiing, and one of my family friends, who I always went with, asked me if I wanted to try ski jumping with him. At 10 years old, I couldn’t think of anything that sounded like more fun, so I naturally said yes! After a year of ski jumping at what is now the Utah Olympic Park, I heard about luge. At the time, they were just starting construction of the luge track that would host the 2002 Olympics, and because of this they were starting a local club. They were trying to get any kids at the Olympic Park involved, and at that time, I had no idea what luge was. It was described to me as “extreme sledding.” Sounded great to me, so I asked my parents if I could try it out. They signed me up, and I never looked back!

Mortensen: I was about 11 years old when I became interested in luge. My father had worked for Verizon, which was the main sponsor of the sport at the time. There had been posters hung up in his office, and radio commercials being aired about the tryouts at Old Westbury College on Long Island. My dad asked me if I wanted to go, and it seemed like something fun to do on a Saturday, so we went and gave it a try.

Tavares: I was an athlete all throughout high school. I’d been in the Guard for a few years when we went to Lake Placid. I had the chance to try it and the coach said I should come back. I began competing and just missed the Olympic Team in 1988. So I continued practicing until one day I met with the Colonel in charge of the National Guard Sports Program at the time. He said, “Do you realize you could be competing for the Guard?” And within a week I had orders. In the early 90s, I ranked in the top 20 for singles and in the top 5 for doubles. I made the Olympic Team in ’92 and finished 9th place in luge doubles. Without the support of the Guard, I wouldn’t have made the team.

 

Coach Tavares: This is actually your sixth Olympics, once as an athlete in ’92, four times as a bobsled coach, and this time as a luge coach. That’s a lot of history. Tell us a little bit about it.

Tavares: Well, I got hurt right before the ’94 games and so the U.S. bobsled coach called and said “why don’t you help out the team.” I made the national bobsled team in ’95 and competed until 1998 when I got another injury. That’s when I retired, but then U.S. bobsled hired me the next day and I went to the ’98 Olympics as a driving coach and sled technician for the men’s team.

After that, women’s bobsled was just starting to try to get to the Olympics. The director called me and asked if I’d help head up the women’s team. I coached several Olympic medal winners, both women and men, who also were Utah National Guard members:

  • In 2002, we won a gold medal for two-woman bobsled with SPC Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers, who became the first African-American to win gold at the Winter Olympics.
  • In 2006, SGT Shauna Rohbock with Valerie Fleming won silver in two-woman bobsled.
  • In 2010, Steve Holcolm, former Combat Engineer for the Guard, piloted the four-man bobsled team to the first gold in 40 years for the U.S. Erin Pac and Elana Meyers also won bronze for two-woman bobsled that year.

After the 2010 games, luge was going through a reorganization and they asked me to join them. This is my fourth year of coaching with them. I’m involved in building the runners and other parts of the sled – there’s no Home Depot for our sleds – and I teach the athletes how to drive them and a little about what I do so they can fix things themselves if I’m not there.

 

What about the history of the Griffall/Mortensen team? Have you always done luge doubles, or have either of you ever competed in singles?

Griffall: When you first learn to luge, you always start out on a singles sled. Usually you train in singles for several years to learn how to control the sled before you try doubles luge. It’s usually when you make the transition from a junior athlete to the Senior World Cup level that you focus on one discipline.

Mortensen: As a junior athlete, I slid both singles and doubles and was quite successful in both disciplines. When you become a senior athlete, the sport gets quite demanding, and it becomes very hard to do both disciplines at the same time. It got to the point where I had to choose, and I decided that my best chance for the Olympics was in the doubles discipline.

 

It seems like doubles would be so much harder because two people have to be in perfect synchronicity to pilot a sled at such high speeds. How do you stay in synch with each other?

Griffall: Doubles is significantly harder because of exactly what you said: It’s two people trying to work as one to navigate the sled down the track. Doubles takes a lot of experience and a lot of time working together to figure out exactly what the role of each person should be. Before each run, we talk about what we’re going to try and accomplish and what we expect from each other. Once we’re going down the track, there isn’t any verbal communication, so we communicate by slight body movements and rely on pure trust.

 

Have you always slid doubles together or have you had other teammates?

Griffall: For the first couple years that I slid in doubles, I competed with another teammate, Dan Joye. We competed in the 2006 Olympics and finished 8th. After that, Matt and I both decided that with our skills as sliders and motivation as athletes, together we would give ourselves the best chance of doing well.

 

As a team, you narrowly missed going to the 2010 Olympics. How far off was your time from qualifying?

Mortensen: We were extremely close. I think the exact time was about .170 of a second behind. It was very heartbreaking to miss out on an Olympics by that close of a margin.

 

Coach Tavares: .170 of a second? Are all luge races that close?

Tavares: Yes, we’ve tied races to the 100th and won gold medals by a 100th. We get so close in luge that we count it to the 1,000th of a second. It’s a blink of an eye, but when we talk a 10th of a second, for us, it’s like talking minutes. Coaches are used to understanding where those hundredths are. I suggested a change once that got an athlete to shave the .263 at the end of her time down to a .26. It was huge – a high-five moment!

 

With races won and lost by a blink of an eye, does that put pressure on the coaches to build the best sleds possible?

Tavares: Yes, aerodynamics and other factors certainly are involved.

 

SGTs Mortensen and Griffall, you both joined the Army’s World Class Athletes Program (WCAP) shortly after missing the 2010 games. How has WCAP improved your performance as a team?

Griffall: Since joining WCAP, I feel like we have definitely had an advantage. WCAP has shown us great support and made sure that anything we need, we’ve gotten. They’ve given us the ability to focus on our training and accomplishing the mission at hand.

Mortensen: I needed support in my life to continue my sport, and I also needed to go back to school.  To me, joining the National Guard, and eventually WCAP, was a win-win. The program provided a way for me to be financially and mentally stable through my training, and allowed me to focus on being an athlete. Without WCAP, I would absolutely not be where I am today.

 

What’s your strategy for Sochi and putting together the best two runs possible on Feb. 12 for a shot at a medal?

Mortensen: The strategy is simple actually. Keep everything the same. Don’t try to do things differently just because the race has a different name. When you start changing your routine or how you do things, that’s when you start to make mistakes. I know that our preparation has been good, and our training in Sochi has been good. As long as we stick to what we know, we will be fine.

Griffall: At the same time, we need to go into Sochi ready to let it all out on the line. I think if we can keep that attitude and pursue the race with that kind of mentality, things could go really well for us.

 

How about you, Coach? What words of advice will you be sharing with the team this week?

Tavares: The basic thing is staying focused. I learned after six Olympics that there are a lot of distractions. You have to stay away from the “noise,” as I call it.

 

Tune in and Stay Tuned:

Stay tuned to On Your Guard next week for race photos and results. And check your local television network listings for the remaining Winter Games luge races:

  • Tuesday, Feb. 11 – Women’s Singles, runs 3 and 4
  • Wednesday, Feb. 12 – Doubles, runs 1 and 2
  • Thursday, Feb. 13 – Team Relay Competition
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