When Serge Morosoff, an Orange County Fire Authority firefighter, entered the home of an 81-year-old man on a recent medical aid call, he couldn’t help but notice the non-commissioned officer sword hung high among plaques and photographs, each connected to the veteran’s Marine Corps service.

Every few months now, Morosoff, who retired from the Marines in 2020 after 25 years, 10 deployments and a battalion command – enters the home of a fellow veteran when responding to 9-1-1 calls. It’s a reminder, he said, of the brotherhood he dedicated his life to while connecting him to a new purpose of service.

“Sometimes I come upon an old Marine that was special, like a guy that fought in Iwo Jima,” he said. “Makes me feel like I’m caring for a national treasure and the last of a dying breed. It’s amazing ’cause I studied that battle, and I stood on the shoulders of giants like them. They survived all that, defeated fascism, defeated Communism, built a life, and raised a family, and here they.

“I tell the crew about those ones.”

Morosoff, of San Clemente, is among at least 100 military veterans the OCFA has hired in the last couple of years. Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said his agency, which serves about two-thirds of Orange County cities, interviews 3,000 and 4,000 firefighter candidates each year and he makes special notes of those who are veterans.

“Veterans with real-life experiences are going to have qualities not found in a person that’s 18- to 20-years-old. Especially Marines – you’re inducted into leadership from boot camp on,” Fennessy said. “I’ll ask them about their core value. To an average applicant, I have to explain what that means. The military veterans, they get that right from the beginning.”

Chief Brian Fennessy at OCFA headquarters in Irvine.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Keep on serving

Fennessy, who has been with the OCFA since 2018, said he puts a premium on hiring military veterans. That started eight years ago when he was chief of the San Diego Fire Department. There, he worked with Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the SEAL teams at the Navy’s Coronado Island on recruiting from their ranks. When he took over at OCFA, he set his sights on Camp Pendelton.

The agency now targets veterans for recruitment and participates in career opportunities put on by the Marine base. About 8,000 Marines leave Camp Pendleton each year, providing a “silver platter” for recruitment, said Morosoff, who now heads up the department’s efforts, while also assigned to a Mission Viejo fire crew.

Many Southern California departments look for veterans and some have incentives for those with military backgrounds.  Los Angeles County Fire employs some 400 veterans and 60 reservists and Los Angeles City Fire has 35 reservists; at the Ventura County Fire Department about 6% of its crews are veterans, and San Diego City Fire Department has 47 veterans on staff.

The U.S. Forest Service also actively recruits at Camp Pendleton and in 2023 has hired 951 veterans nationally.

Fennessy said he likes his chances going up against law enforcement agencies when speaking to potential recruits about opportunities provided, work-life balance and offering a way to still be of service to others. But he also knows the specific requirements of fire service – a high school diploma and an Emergency Medical Technician license – require extra commitment. The EMT license takes six months at a community college.

“Some getting out may not have a semester to give,” the chief said. “Some veterans have to get to work. It gives (law enforcement) an advantage.”

Sam Prescott, a Marine MV-22 Osprey pilot captain, is now a firefighter at OCFA’s Station 4 in Irvine. He was drawn, he said, to fire service because of the “teamwork, physicality, variety and helping nature of the job.”

“I wanted a job with meaning and purpose,” the Mater Dei High alum said. “Every day, you don’t know what call you’ll get. But every day, we’re out there and we’re helping someone.”

Prescott sees parallels between his Marine job and firefighting.

“A fire apparatus crew is real similar to the aircrew of an assault support aircraft in both the size of the crew and the operating relationship,” Prescott said. “Our mission is just as varied in the fire service as it is in assault support aviation. We have trained and are ready to conduct a multitude of different missions both day and night and in all weather conditions.”

Serge Morosoff is currently a firefighter with the Orange County Fire Authority at Station #31, on Olympiad Road in Mission Viejo. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

‘Not squandering potential’

For Morosoff, the fire service presented a different way to “continue being useful.”

As he got closer to 20 years of military service in 2016, he began thinking about what might be next. He’d had enough of saying goodbye to his family after 10 deployments, but wanted to be purposeful, he said.

At 17, he had decided the Marines were his only future and he made his years there count. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who, as a career Marine, eventually commanded an artillery battalion.

“He wanted me to not squander potential,” Morosoff said of his father’s guidance when joining the Marine, a sentiment that also played into his decision later to become a firefighter.

“I wanted to have influence and make a difference,” he said. “I never considered a civilian job.”

But then as he rose through the ranks and completed multiple deployments, while also growing his family, ideas of retirement and a new challenge crept in.

He’d met a few firefighters at his son’s Little League games in San Clemente and they told him about their work-life balance and still having the excitement of being out in the field. They encouraged him to give fire service serious consideration.

And later, when he told a few of his fellow commanders, most thought he was joking, others were surprised, but some, like Brig. Gen. Jason Morris, who knew Morosoff from Camp Pendleton, commends the Marine for what he’s doing now, calling him a “stud and patriot” who was born to serve others, first his country and now his community, Morris said.

OCFA was the most selective, Morosoff found. “All departments will tell you they like veterans. An organization will reflect its leader. Chief Fennessy gets the most credit for hiring veterans.  Instead of giving vets lip service, he puts his time and attention into the matter, and I think it shows.”

When Morosoff had his conversation with Fennessy, he stood out just as the chief expected he would.

“You get a retired veteran; the kids will follow them because they’re natural leaders,” Fennessy said. “He was a slam dunk.”

Now, at Mission Viejo Fire Station 31, Morosoff proves Fennessy right.

“We hired him for the leadership and what he’d bring to the organization,” his captain, Ryan Anderson said. “All that fire know-how can be taught.”

Capt. Anderson said he most appreciates Morosoff’s leadership and motivation through his personality and perspective.

“Every day, he reminds everyone on the crew how lucky we are to have a job in the fire service,” said Anderson, who’s given 28 years to the fire service, eight at OCFA. “He’s happy and excited to be at work and help the public. This spirit to helps spread to the crew. He leads by example.”

Anderson recalled a shift where the crew had three nights without sleep after responding to a 6-hour warehouse fire and then a brush fire in Beaumont. As Morosoff finished mop-up duties and shoveled dirt on hot embers on a day with a temperature of 108 degrees, Anderson recalled Morosoff’s positive vibe, saying, “Better than the Pentagon.”

“He can outwork firefighters half his age,” Anderson added. “The Marine Corps taught him the importance of service and hard work. These things are invaluable to the fire service and take years to learn.”

Orange County Fire Authority engineer Chad Butts, left, and OCFA firefighter Serge Morosoff, right, both career Marines, with Morosoff a former lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, speak with Marines transitioning out of the Marine Corps and working in the fire service as a possible career during the Fall Career Exploration and Hiring Event, on Thursday, October 19, 2023 at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Recruiting at Camp Pendleton

That Marine ethos is also what Morosoff relies on when recruiting back on base. On a recent day, he was at Camp Pendleton alongside another Marine veteran and OCFA firefighter, Chad Butts, who retired as a sergeant major after  27 years. About 700 Marines were at the job fair looking for new opportunities.

Butts, of Temecula, was who helped Morosoff to make the final leap to becoming a firefighter, Morosoff said. “I wanted to talk to someone who knew what it meant to go from the Marines to the fire service.”

The two met at the beach near San Clemente, and Morosoff first off noticed how relaxed Butts was.

“At first, there was a lot of cleaning bathrooms and a bunch of stuff (privates) do, but I told him I love my job,” Butts recalled telling Morosoff. “When someone calls 9-1-1, they’re having the worst day and you get to be the first person to help out. People are a lot more thankful than you think.”

That’s what both Morosoff and Butts told the dozens of Marines who lined up to find out about firefighting. They told them fire service traditions are revered, just like in the Marines. They talked about brotherhood, they compared fire service meals to Marine chow and they talked about the excitement and pay the jobs provide.

Patrick C. Keplinger, a career services program manager with the Marine Corps Community Services, talks about Marines transitioning out of the Marine Corps during the Fall Career Exploration and Hiring Event. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Patrick Keplinger, a Marine veteran who is now the Marine Corps Community Services program manager and helped coordinate the job fair, emphasized the importance of the real-life example Morosoff and Butts present to Marines looking for a second career. Just like the two veterans, the Marines looking for jobs have learned to manage their time, take orders, or give orders, and already had a career with specific skills.

Seeing war-worn veterans enthusiastic about what they’re doing makes the Marines realize they, too “are sought after because of what they’ve gone through,” Keplinger said.

“The day you join boot camp, you’re no longer Joe Smith; they’re making you a Marine and you have to rely on your brother and sister to make it through; those bonds last a lifetime,” he said. “When you join the fire service, you wear the same uniforms, and there’s the same camaraderie and adrenaline. It’s not the same profession, but it’s an easy transition. If you’re a firefighter, you’re also a hero.”

Related links

Silver Star Marine who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam gets emotional burial at sea
Decorated Marine veteran overcomes trauma of war through the power of horses
Veterans Day: Letters home from Vietnam War connect husband and wife even decades later
Staff Sgt. Reckless wasn’t just a horse, she was a Marine who served in Korean War
A Silver Star Marine looks to veterans for help in braving civilian world

Master Sgt. Ben Orrock, at age 37, will have 20 years in the Marines in July. After speaking with Morosoff and Butts, his decision to apply was sealed, he said.

“I’ve never heard so many people who can say they love their job and serving people,” he said. “I’ve always been the kind of person to help people. Now I can.”

Morosoff is still in awe each time he leaves a call and climbs into the back of the fire truck, he said.

“I spent a whole career training or trying to kill people on behalf of America,” he said. “I want to spend the rest of my life helping people.”

“When I get off the engine with the bags, it’s still surreal that I get to be that person,” he added. “I come off a call and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m a firefighter.’”

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