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Giving back: Veterans find fulfillment as volunteers with the Bainbridge Island Fire Department
Two veterans who once served on opposite ends of the globe are now brothers in arms back home in the Pacific Northwest.
Scott Leaver, a Navy veteran, and Brian Wilkinson, a former Army infantryman, both serve as volunteer firefighters/EMTs for the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.
Both said they've found their volunteer work gratifying and a bit reminiscent in some ways of their military service.
Leaver is a real estate broker by day who joined the fire department at the suggestion of others.
He came to Bainbridge Island with his wife, Cathy Lolley-Leaver, who is from Bainbridge and is a fourth-grade teacher at Ordway Elementary.
Leaver enlisted in the Navy when he was 19 and was once assigned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where he was assigned to VAQ 140, an electronic attack squadron, as an aviation logistics manager/air warfare specialist. The squadron, nicknamed “the Patriots,” was then comprised of communication-jamming Prowlers assigned to the USS George Washington, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
Leaver was on board the Washington on the carrier's first deployment, and also was aboard the carrier for Operation Deny Flight (the NATO operation in early 1993 to enforce the United Nations' "no-fly zone" over Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Operation Joint Endeavor (the deployment of peacekeeping forces to Bosnia).
During the later part of his seven-year Navy career, he was assigned to the Blue Angels, the Navy's flight demonstration team, where he reached the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class.
The visits of the Blue Angels to Seafair brought him back to Seattle, and he later took up a job offer from Washington Mutual and stayed.
"I love being up here," Leaver said.
The banking job lasted about seven years, he recalled, but he began studying for a real estate license after his position with Washington Mutual lost its luster.
"I didn't like corporate life a lot; it was not exactly what I wanted," he said.
Leaver found greater fulfillment as a volunteer for Bainbridge's fire department.
The bond between firefighters is a lot like the one shared by those who have served in the military, he said.
It's tough to put a finger on, but those who've worn the uniform know it best.
"The camaraderie here, and in the military, you can't explain that," he said.
Leaver, who will turn 40 in August, has a full family life — three boys, a baby on the way, and a daughter in college — said it's important to give back to the community. It's a gratifying gift.
"People know, when we show up, we're there to help them," Leaver said.
Wilkinson agreed that the best part of being a firefighter is serving with others who've made the same commitment.
"It's the team," Wilkinson said. "It's kind of hard to explain. You put a uniform on ... and you're representing your department. But I think the biggest thing is knowing you've got a big group of brothers who are here and they are all here to support you."
Wilkinson, 40, owns a contracting business called 3B Square. He comes from sixth-generation Olympic Peninsula stock, and his personal and military background has proven to be an asset in the fire service.
"Growing up on a small farm on the Olympic Peninsula, I learned from an early age to kind of take care of myself. If you needed something fixed, you couldn't call people to fix it for you - we just did it ourselves," Wilkinson said.
He also enlisted at age 19, and served in the Army from 1993 through 1996. He was stationed in Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division. As an air assault light infantry solider, he was tapped for long-range surveillance as a reconnaissance scout and sniper team leader.
His family had to warm up to his Army career a little bit, Wilkinson admitted. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both Navy men.
"I came home for my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, and I'm wearing my black beret and I'm all decked out in my Class A's. I'm thinking I'm looking pretty good," he recalled.
"And my grandpa comes walking around the corner, and he looks at me and gets choked up. There's a tear in his eye and he comes over. And I said, 'Hey grandpa, what's wrong?'"
"'Son, you'd look so much better in Navy white,'" came the reply.
After his Army stint, Wilkinson lived in Germany for four years while his wife, Barbara Zehentner-Wilkinson, continued her research toward a doctorate's degree in molecular biology. Wilkinson got a job with the Department of Defense in the Army's MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) program in Garmisch, Germany, where he taught skiing and outdoor education. He also apprenticed as a timber framer.
With the family now living on Bainbridge — the couple has a boy and two girls — Wilkinson found himself often being the go-to guy in the neighborhood when the power went out or bad weather knocked down trees. He'd clear clogged roads with his tractor, or take firewood to those without.
His helpful and resourceful nature got noticed, and people encouraged him to think about volunteering for the local fire department.
"It's the most gratifying thing that I've ever done," Wilkinson said. "Once you're involved in participating in a CPR and save somebody's life, it makes your day job look not very gratifying."
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 edition of Veterans Life.