LYNDEN, Wash. — Five years ago, Chris Brown was leading fellow Marines into combat in Afghanistan. Today he leads fellow veterans in operating a farm in northwestern Washington.
At Growing Veterans, a 3-acre plot of organically managed land near the Canadian border, Brown and other veterans work together to grow vegetables and to support each other through a vulnerable time of their lives.
The key, Brown said, is in community.
“Vets’ unemployment, homelessness and suicide are secondary factors to isolation,” he said. “We tend to isolate ourselves from family, friends, the community as a whole.”
Once he found that farming the past few years helped him deal with post-traumatic stress, he knew that it would also help other returning veterans.
“And it’s more than therapeutic,” he said. “It leads to paying jobs.”
Brown holds a bachelor’s degree in human services with a psychology minor. He’s active with local and regional veterans’ organizations, and he serves as chairman of the Whatcom County Veterans Advisory Board.
His organization, Growing Veterans, is not only a way to bring veterans together, but to connect them with the rest of the community, he said.
Vocational training programs have sprung up across the country for post-9/11 veterans, and some of them focus on agriculture as a way to help them re-adjust to civilian life. Veterans learn farm skills as they discover ways to get past the battlefield’s aftermath.
Burt Haugen found little help in dealing with post-traumatic stress when he returned home from Vietnam in 1968.
“We mustered out in San Francisco, they gave us a new uniform and then we went home,” he said. “They didn’t tell us about going to the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) and we never heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).”
Haugen started college on the GI Bill, but he dropped out to take on a bigger role at the family dairy in Buckley, Wash.
The labors of dairy farming brought him both a living and a healing, he said. Whether it was taking care of a calf or repairing machinery, he found therapy.
“I like to work by myself,” he said. “It’s quiet when you’re milking in the morning.”
Two things have helped him deal with the images and memories of combat that he couldn’t shake: the hard work of dairying and the connections he has made with fellow Vietnam veterans.
Even now, more than 40 years later, he doesn’t sleep well, and his mind wanders. “I can’t sit still. I have to keep plugging along.”
In his time, veterans all had to find their own ways to cope, he said. “If they didn’t have some career to come back to, a lot of them just spent a lot of time in the bars and had a tough life.”
Eventually the VA notified Haugen that anyone who had received a Purple Heart — a medal awarded to members of the armed forces who have been wounded in action — was eligible for medical benefits, and he got into programs that helped him deal with the past.
He said he’s now glad to see the VA is “really following through” for returning veterans.
Since 2001, 2 million men and women have completed tours of military service and returned to civilian life. More than 250,000 were seen for potential PTSD at VA facilities following their return from deployment. More than 750,000 were unemployed in 2012.
Agencies public and private have developed programs to meet the need. Agriculture-related efforts include:
• The Farmer Veteran Coalition works with veterans, their families, employers and mentors to support those returning to or beginning careers in food and farming.
• Archi’s Acres, a farming enterprise based in California, teaches veterans how to produce crops and build a business.
• Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots uses existing programs funded by the USDA, VA, Department of Defense, Small Business Administration and state and local agencies to create successful business succession plans that match participants with existing farm, business and ranch owners.
Brown’s Growing Veterans program, in its first year of production, represents the cooperation of several nonprofit agencies. Brown works under a fellowship with The Mission Continues, a national group that encourages veterans in service to their communities and bridges the military-civilian divide.
The farm is a part of Growing Washington, which supports projects that build the state’s health, environment and economy. It sells produce through farmers’ markets, restaurants, farm-to-school programs, wholesale and a 1,200-member community-supported agriculture program.
“The food we grow goes to Growing Washington, which allows us to just grow it, instead of marketing, et cetera,” Brown said.
The dozen or so veterans at the farm are on fellowships, volunteers or going to school on the GI Bill at Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College or Bellingham Technical College.
At Growing Veterans, farm manager Chris Wolf has the most farming experience. She has done post-graduate work in counseling and shifted to farming about five years ago.
“This combines my interests,” she said. “We don’t have direct therapy, but let the healing happen. There’s no pressure to talk or not to talk.”
In “Dirt Therapy,” a video about the farm, Wolf described recent research in the “mood-lifting properties of getting soil on your hands, of actually getting dirt on your skin. There’s tiny little bacteria in the soil that actually secrete a substance that goes through your skin and makes you happier. It has the same effect on your brain as an antidepressant.”
Clay Swansen, a Mission Continues fellow who served seven years in the Navy as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, said, “The most satisfying part of the farm for me is working and talking with other vets. We all bring unique perspectives to the table, and it often helps to get another’s point of view on things. We are each other’s sounding board here, and it’s just another way that the farm helps us in our transition back to the civilian world.”
“We make things as informal as possible here,” Brown said.
With row crops in the fields and tomatoes and basil thriving in the two greenhouses, he is prouder of his green thumb than of his Purple Heart.
“We were the first ones in Washington to have sugar snap peas to market. That gave us some street cred,” he said.
Brown is now looking for a site with more room to grow, but in the meantime he’s sure of what he wants in the future.
“I want to be involved with farming the rest of my life.”