Veterans for sustainability, an idea generated in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is taking shape and moving across the country.

WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques


e are hoping to be both the model and the catalyst,” says Brian Sales of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Green Veterans Group. As one of the group’s two founders, Sales speaks emphatically about the program that helped him reintegrate into civilian society after 10 years in the U.S. Army Infantry.


Partly a response to challenges faced by veterans post service, the Green Veterans Group’s genesis can be traced back to a brainstorming session between Sales and co-founder Jonathan Burgess. The two met in 2013 while attending the Florida Caribbean Regional Leadership Summit. “We started talking about the things USGBC does as a whole,” recalls Sales. “And I am very passionate about veterans and veterans’ issues, especially reintegration and employment.” As a civilian and long-serving USGBC volunteer, Burgess’s own mission has been to connect veterans with opportunities in the green industry. Though from different backgrounds, the pair bonded over the idea that USGBC could be a vehicle for providing direction, connection, and purpose for returning veterans.


Barely a year later, the idea has taken flight. Sales himself serves as an example of the program’s success. Deployed three times—once to Kosovo and twice for combat tours in Iraq—he returned home to look for a new career path. “As a veteran, it’s really hard to reintegrate back into the civilian sector,” he explains. “Having a job is critical.” During his time in the army, Sales—like many veterans—grew accustomed to structure, discipline, and clear expectations. “All of a sudden, you get out and you are disenfranchised.” Without the army’s regimental rules, Sales felt directionless. “Add the complication of post-traumatic stress disorder, whose symptoms become more pronounced when you enter civilian life…and now you are all alone.” His course of action was to enter a college program for alternative and renewable energy management, which, ultimately, is what connected him to USGBC.


Air Force veteran Edel Travieso experienced those same feelings and sought refuge in the Green Veterans Group. “Being so fresh out of the military and getting back into a group of like-minded individuals with the same passion and drive as I have—that was a learning experience in and of itself,” says Travieso, who ultimately served as advocacy chair for the program. “To be taken in by that group and to be part of something bigger than me…it was an opportunity to do something great.”

Cover: Edel Travieso educates fellow Green Veterans on how wind and solar energy is converted for use inside a home at Palm Beach State College energy lab. This image: USGBC’s Green Veterans group founder Brian Sales and veteran Edel Travieso. Photo: Gary John Norman

A teenage father at 17, Travieso turned to the Air Force for guidance. At the time, he felt, school wasn’t an option. “Although I very much wanted to go to college, my life took a different course,” he says. “However, as it turned out, it was the best decision I ever made. I like to think that things always happen for a reason.” He views his six years in service as a time of growth, during which he learned leadership skills and found “purpose, motivation, and direction.”


Brian Sales and Edel Travieso perform a roof and exterior inspection as part of the energy audit. Photo: Gary John Norman

Eventually, it also afforded him an opportunity to earn a college degree. “I was [able to] get money for school after my enlistment through the GI Bill while taking care of my family,” explains Travieso.


Travieso joined the Green Veterans program on meeting Sales—the two were classmates at Everglades University and shared an interest in alternative and renewable energy management. “I quickly realized it was something that could be potentially huge, bigger than me or anybody in the group,” says Travieso.


Meanwhile, Burgess, who has many relatives who have served, heeded another kind of call to action. “I always felt a need, growing up, to do more than just say, ‘Thank you for your service.’” Equipped with leadership skills, accustomed to regulations, and respectful of procedures, Burgess viewed veterans as a promising pool of employees for the green industry. “While Brian was fighting for our country, I was slowly serving in various roles within the USGBC,” notes Burgess. “Once the two of us connected, it seemed like I could be the civilian counterpart and collaborator to help bring veterans’ issues to the surface within the context of the USGBC.”


Jonathan Burgess is the co-founder of the Green Veteran’s Group.

In time, it became clear that green building projects were a source of empowerment for veterans. So, in late 2013, the group started identifying some focus areas. In an effort to “create a green army to help our country be sustainable,” they developed training courses—taught by USGBC Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) faculty volunteers, Building Performance Institute (BPI) instructors, and institutional partners including two Florida community colleges. The Green Veterans Sustainability Training Program combines the curricula of LEED Green Associates and BPI to provide practical “green education” to veterans that will be valuable to prospective employers. “There are a lot of ways we can provide that initial education,” notes Burgess.


Beyond the classroom lies on-the-job training. “We need to provide that transition into long-term job placement,” says Burgess. With help from Solar Energy Loan Fund (SELF)—a local nonprofit agency that helps administer loans to pay for energy-saving home improvements—veterans complete an apprenticeship with a contractor. To create such opportunities, the Green Veterans Group collaborates with organizations like Rebuilding Together, United Way’s Mission United, and Green Collar Vets (“a clearinghouse for green jobs”), among others. “We figured, with that program, veterans would automatically get jobs as energy auditors in the field while working on getting their LEED-accredited professional certification,” notes Sales. “It’s like a pipeline that we pretty much created.”

SELF Program


Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF) was founded in 2010 and focuses on community development projects in underserved areas in Florida, with an emphasis on home energy improvements. SELF provides energy expertise and affordable financing to help low to mid-income homeowners and small businesses identify and make cost-effective energy changes to their homes and businesses. The Veterans helping Veterans program through SELF allows for veterans to lend to other veterans through crowdsourcing or peer-to-peer lending. SELF is responsible for screening applicants and posting loan requests on the website KIVA, a nonprofit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. If the funding goal is reached within 30 days, KIVA will distribute funds to SELF to complete the client’s home improvement goals and SELF will service the loan until maturity.

Equipped with both training and industry experience, participants also collaborate with partner organizations on veteran-oriented community projects, or “boots-on-the-ground work.” The goal of the partnership is twofold: First, the program enables veterans to have energy improvements and structural repairs made to their homes, and second, LEED-trained veterans complete the work. “It’s about veterans helping veterans,” explains Sales.


Like Sales, Travieso is a shining example of the Green Veterans Group’s vitality. Since his initial involvement, he has been working on the programs he helped established, particularly the sustainability training program, the development of which had him talking to city officials, volunteer groups, and heads of universities. “It was both a personal and professional learning experience…and very rewarding and very educational.”



The Green Veterans team and college faculty at Palm Beach State University Solar and Wind Lab. Photo: Gary John Norman

Travieso’s college degree, in conjunction with his involvement in the Green Veterans program, “gave legitimacy to my credentials.” Upon graduating, he applied for a job with SELF and—with a recommendation from USGBC South Florida executive director Lee Cooke and one from Sales—he landed the position. Travieso now serves as a manager at SELF PACE Now in St. Lucie County, Florida. “I guess [Green Veterans] works because here I am in the green industry.”


Another of the Group’s efforts stems from a relatively new field of study: therapeutic building design for trauma resolution. Meant to address issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, the concept employs the WELL Building Standard—with its focus on air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind—to enhance spaces for veterans. “We want to change the types of buildings veterans live, work, and play in,” explains Burgess. Following in the footsteps of LEED for Healthcare, evidence-based therapeutic build-and-design strategies aim to create places of respite. “It’s everything from security-based design to places for socialization and places for contemplation—with good acoustics and quality views,” notes Burgess. “It’s what we see as being the next wave of wellness…it’s what we’d like to see the Green Veterans program focus on.”


The hope is to see those design principles applied in American Legion halls, VFW posts, VA centers, and veteran housing. “There’s an opportunity to take a step back from just energy and water efficiency,” says Burgess, “…and look at some of these other subtle approaches to design.”


Given its success in South Florida, the Green Veterans Group is now expanding into other USGBC chapters. “It’s not going to take very long for these little grassroots camps to start making a real effort in communities across the country,” notes Burgess. In addition to being a model, the group is also a liaison between chapters; the program and startup tools they have created are replicable. According to Burgess, it’s a matter of connecting a veteran who has an interest in sustainability with a USGBC chapter. “It’s pretty easy to use the tools that we have developed to start a local movement in a variety of settings,” he says. In fact, Burgess predicts the program will be part of USGBC chapters nationwide in 5 to 10 years.


“There are a lot of veterans out there who need help,” says Sales. “I think we can be a part of the solution. Once veterans see a good program that has meaning and will help them with employment, they’ll jump right on it.”


Asked how he might advise former service members re-entering society, Travieso says he would tell them to talk to the people behind Green Veterans. “They will not only help you get a job, they also help integrate you into society and talk to you about all your troubles and all the challenges that come with getting out of the service and living in the world and trying to make it. I would tell them to engage and collaborate. I did it and it has worked out for me so far.”