Veterans readjust with 'dirty' work
Horticultural therapy helps vets learn new skills, reconnect with their communities
By STEVE BROWN
WOODINVILLE, Wash. -- Returning from the regimented life of the armed forces to a relatively unfettered civilian environment can be a sudden and troubling change for a veteran.
Jonathan Phillips understands this. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2003.
"The military doesn't prepare you for transition back to civilian life," he said.
As program director for the Veterans Agricultural Cooperative, Phillips uses horticultural therapy to help fellow veterans make that transition.
The co-op, working land at 21 Acres in Woodinville, focuses on restoring their mental and physical health, offering them a place to "get your hands dirty, getting together with other vets," he said.
Learning the skills involved in making things grow appeals to the values a veteran has developed while in uniform, he said -- a solid work ethic, leadership skills, a sense of orderliness and discipline.
"Part of the vet's mission is helping others, providing a service to community," he said.
Phillips returned from military service to Central Washington University, then became involved in the Veterans Conservation Corps, a state program that teaches the skills needed for "green" jobs.
Now an AmeriCorps volunteer, he has had no formal training in agriculture, but learned basic skills from his father, a landscaper.
As he has gotten the co-op rolling, he has relied on Rosy Smit, the farm manager at 21 Acres.
Smit said she's encouraged by how the co-op is involving so many people.
Several vets in the co-op have expressed an interest in farming as a profession, Phillips said. On the group's Facebook page, he issued a call for a planting party on Memorial Day weekend, and 10 people showed up ready to work.
"And it's not just vets," he said. "People from the community joined in, too. Working side-by-side helps the vets reconnect."
Phillips said he appreciates the different reception now compared with after the Vietnam War:
"People nowadays understand," he said.
Only a half-acre is being worked so far in the first full growing season, but there's room to expand. A hoop house shelters a variety of seedlings until time to transplant them outside. Raised beds and within reach of veterans with combat injuries.
The equipment and supplies have come from donations and cast-off items from a nearby gardening center.
"We're not covered by a nonprofit," Phillips said. "I hope it gets picked up by one."
His hitch with Americorps will end in July, and he hopes to find a job that will allow him to continue as part-time program director at the farm.
Come harvest time, the first priority for the vets is to take food home for themselves. Second priority is to sell at a farmers' market or a farmstand. Third is to donate the produce to a local food bank.
Just as important as producing food is the nourishing atmosphere of the farm environment, well removed from urban noises, Phillips said. "The peace and solitude of this place -- to me that's mission accomplished."
The co-op is looking for additional land to farm in Washington. Contact Jonathan Phillips at email@example.com or 206-569-5364.