Erin Rust didn’t dream of being a soldier or park ranger. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she volunteered at a zoo and wanted to be a zookeeper. Sept. 11 changed her direction.
After watching the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers, Rust felt the call to serve. She enlisted in the Army at 17.
After completing basic training and technical training, Rust served with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment 3rd Squadron in Germany. She served as a wheeled vehicle mechanic.
She deployed with her unit to Iraq from August 2007 to October 2008, spending her 20th and 21st birthdays there. Although a mechanic by trade, Rust quickly picked up a new role. The Army needed female soldiers to perform physical searches of Iraqi women, so Rust spent more time with the Female Search Team. She served several months in Baghdad, then spent the majority of her deployment about 75 miles northeast of the city.
Following her deployment, she returned to Germany, then served a short time in the Army Reserve. After two college stints, she received an email advertising a job as a park ranger. She decided to try it, attending the Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program in 2017. Rust spent her first two summer seasons at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, while she spent the winter in between at Everglades National Park in Florida.
She said she knew right away park ranger was the right career field. In Colorado, she spent much of her time hiking to rescue lost or injured visitors. In Florida, she protected wading birds and alligators from visitors who “were a bit too curious.”
Her first permanent position was at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. She rode in SUV’s, Jeeps, ATV’s, UTV’s, trucks, swamp buggies, boats, air boats, kayaks and helicopters in order to patrol the preserve for poaching. On any given day while on patrol, she saw alligators, black bears, snakes, turtles, eagles, deer, turkey and “more wading birds than you can imagine.”
Rust transferred to Dry Tortugas National Park in January 2020. The park is 68 miles west of Key West and only accessible by boat or sea plane.
“I love nearly everything here: the water, the staff, the visitors, the wildlife, the history,” she said. “I could do with just a bit more breeze in the summer as it does get ridiculously hot out here. The lack of breeze makes for some of the absolute best snorkeling and diving you can find.”
Rust plans to stay in federal law enforcement, then work on reducing plastic waste in the ocean.
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