US Air Force Veteran Transitions from Combat Fields to Solar Farms

June 27, 2017
June 27, 2017 TerraSmart

New Team member Brent VanPatten aims high at TerraSmart

When Brent VanPatten recalls his favorite moments from two decades in the US Air Force, he goes back to the beginning when he was a trainee electrician in a heavy construction unit called a RED HORSE squadron.  Short for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron Engineer, RED HORSE introduced VanPatten to an excellent trade while he formed the tightest team bonds of his career.

After 20 years working his way up to technical sergeant in the Air Force, first through electrical journeyman and later through combat aviation advisor, VanPatten has shifted gears. Now he’s building clean solar energy plants.

Through the Department of Energy’s Solar Ready Vet training and recruitment program, VanPatten was introduced both to the world of solar and to TerraSmart. In May, he joined up with TerraSmart’s North East, New York office to learn new tricks of the solar trade as a field supervisor.

Recharging his family life by going back to his electrical roots

It’s a transition he couldn’t have made successfully without help from the DOE’s Solar Ready Vet Program.  With his first daughter about to turn eight and his second girl now a year old, VanPatten decided it was time to retire from a military career on the road so that he could be with his family. “It’s tough to watch your kids grow up over the computer and pictures,” he says. “Now I’m going to be home with them.”

Going back to his roots as an electrician made sense, VanPatten thought, because it involves high-demand, well-paid work that he truly enjoys. He knew he needed to refresh his skills, but he also knew he didn’t want a managerial position pushing paperwork behind a desk. He wanted to get back in the field and work with his hands.

VanPatten stumbled across the Solar Ready Vet program as he was researching apprenticeship programs and jumped at the chance to join the ranks of an emerging industry like renewable energy.

How a Florida Veteran found a solar calling in upstate New York

Based on the specific needs of high-growth solar employers, the Solar Ready Vets training program builds on the technical skills that veterans acquired during their military service. Each cohort trains about 20 active military personnel over the course of four to six weeks. Depending on the location, Solar Ready Vets offers cohorts a hybrid format of online and in-person classes combined with hands-on experience installing solar panels in the field. Neither the service member nor the military base pays for anything.

Based in Florida, VanPatten joined the first Solar Ready Vet cohort at Eglin Air Force Base, about 45 miles east of Pensacola. The Air Force teamed up with local Northwest Florida Community College to offer training to both active-duty and military-dependent students.

As the training concluded, program coordinators — determined to find work for every graduate –recruited solar companies from across the country to come participate in a job fair. Keen to guide recent program graduates into solar careers, TerraSmart interviewed the entire class and chose VanPatten to come on board as a field supervisor in upstate New York, where he already was planning to relocate to be closer to relatives.

It couldn’t have been a better match. For VanPatten, getting his foot in the door of the solar industry was “a no-brainer.”  He loves electrical work and “the idea of joining an emerging industry such as solar where there will always be opportunities.”

Sharing a world of service experience

Working up through the ranks while immersed in foreign cultures across the globe certainly builds character. VanPatten brings TerraSmart years of experience, not only as an electrician, but as a leader and a diplomat.  With assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi and Bahrain, VanPatten honed technical and interpersonal skills.

His service record ranged from being a helicopter gunner on Air Support Operations Center missions to working with combat aviation advisors training Pakistani air force and army personnel – speaking Urdu, no less.

Ultimately, he rose to the rank of technical sergeant and at retirement he was supervising combat aviation advisors and mentoring younger staff. That international experience should serve him well as he joins solar racking leader TerraSmart to build utility-scale ground-mount projects.

Advice for vets considering a solar career

VanPatten wants others to take advantage of the Solar Vet Program, noting that solar is a thriving industry that offers a wide spectrum of career paths both in the field and behind a desk. From management to billing and supply, there are many options in the solar industry besides becoming an installer.

Now VanPatten can rise through the ranks at TerraSmart. He’s eager to learn more about the company’s autonomous technologies, including its precision survey rover, and to apply his experience in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to help TerraSmart triple survey speed and accuracy for solar developers.

Joining a company like TerraSmart that drives high-quality, cost-effective solar is VanPatten’s new mission because “excellence in all we do” is not just an Air Force motto; it’s one of TerraSmart’s core values, too.

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