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FORT WORTH The flames were hot, the smoke was thick, and the danger was real Wednesday morning on the Tarrant County College northwest campus in Fort Worth.

And though these firefighting students have yet to do battle outside the confines of campus, for many of them, putting their lives at risk to help others is nothing new.

'I served with the United States Army,' said student Dustin Cain of Bedford.

He spent time at Fort Hood and also in Iraq. Cain is now one of 22 veterans graduating from TCC's Fire Service Training Center thanks to a grant and a special program called College Credit For Heroes.

'There's a large influx [of veterans] coming back,' said program coordinator Ryan Kelly. 'We're going to go from 19,000 to 35,000 coming back to the State of Texas.'

Kelly added that veterans sometimes struggle when returning to civilian life.

'You had a purpose, you had a definition, you knew what you were waking up to do every single day,' he said.

This program aims not just to get structure back in their lives, but to give them a lifelong post-military career, too.

Even if the grants run out, TCC pledges to continue the program, which may soon also include criminal justice. Other schools in Texas are also offering various degrees to veterans who qualify.

The class of firefighters at TCC, which is predominantly composed of veterans, graduates on Friday. They're wrapping up their 568 hours of training this week.

'Being able to go back in a program that was full of all veterans, you know, I felt like I was going to step back into that brotherhood,' Cain said.

It's familiar territory for these heroes, who went from protecting their country to protecting their neighborhood.

E-mail lzakalik@wfaa.com

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