A U.S. Army veteran from Western Washington is now helping in the fight against wildlife poachers in East Africa.
Kinessa Johnson, whose home is in Yelm in Thurston County, served four years in the Army as a weapons instructor and mechanic, and served a tour in Afghanistan. Last November she decided to join Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW) as an anti-poaching advisor.
"(VETPAW) was searching for a female to train female park rangers so I applied and was selected," she said.
VETPAW is a nonprofit organization that works to help end the African wildlife poaching crisis by utilizing the skills of U.S. veterans to train park rangers and support their communities.
The organization was founded by a Marine Corps veteran who wanted to help endangered wildlife and thought who better to take on the operation than post-9/11 veterans.
"We work side by side with park rangers and it's truly a learning experience for not only park rangers but also our team," said Johnson. "Our intention is not to harm anyone; we're here to train park rangers so they can track and detain poachers and ultimately prevent poaching."
A photo of Johnson holding a massive weapon has been circulating on the Internet and on social media. That brings both admirers and "haters," but she just considers it to be part of her mission.
"Find something you're good at and think of a way you can benefit an organization assisting to protect and conserve wildlife," she said.
Johnson is quick to point out that she's not a "poacher hunter."
"I'm a technical adviser to anti-poaching rangers so I patrol routinely with them and also assist in intelligence operations," she said.
"Most of the time anyone that is in a reserve with a weapon is considered a threat and can be shot if rangers feel threatened. Our goal is to prevent trigger pulling through strategic movements and methods of prevention."
She said there is a downturn in poaching when VETPAW's presence is known.
"That's why we have to be strategic. Intel plays a huge role in what we do," she said.
Johnson is passionate about what she is doing to protect animals.
"Imagine one of your community's most cherished assets disappearing forever. It impacts everything," she said.