NEWARK, N.J. — When Marland Lawrence entered the fire academy after coming home from the Navy, he was surprised to find out he was not the only veteran in his class. Almost everyone else had also just left the military.
Lawrence was one of 28 veterans in Newark's 41st fire recruit class, which graduated Tuesday. Three others were also sworn in.
It is not a coincidence. New Jersey's largest city has spent the past few years actively recruiting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in its Fire Department. It is the first time the department has recruited veterans since World War II.
"They bring that life experience, the camaraderie, the teamwork, and already knowing a quasi-military structure," said John Centanni, the Newark fire chief. "They know rank and how to take orders. They bring all of that to the table."
The city's veterans office recruited returning veterans through phone calls and job fairs, and told veterans who contacted it about the firefighting job possibilities. New Jersey and other states give veterans preference in their civil service exams.
The recruits were sworn in Tuesday in the New Hope Baptist Church. The firefighters' pipe band, clad in kilts, played while marching down the aisle of the church.
The recruits are "one of the most historic class of firefighters this city has seen in many, many years," Mayor Cory Booker said. "They were heroes before they even put on the firefighter's uniform."
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website, Newark received a $7.1 million grant through the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. The grants make recruiting and hiring veterans a priority. Newark has hired 55 firefighters with the three-year grant.
Nationally, veterans have struggled to find work. The nationwide jobless rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 9.7 percent in September. The Department of Justice awarded more than $111 million to 220 cities and counties in June to create law enforcement positions. A bill that would establish a $1 billion jobs program for veterans is stalled in Congress.
When Lawrence got back from serving in Bahrain, he couldn't find a job. With his unemployment running out, he went to the veterans office, which helped him enroll in college and take the civil service exam.
The fact that nearly everyone had military service created a competitive but collaborative spirit that carried the group through the 12-week training, Lawrence said. "There was a special bond," he said.