Trading Arms for Farms

Finally home from combat in Iraq, Steve Edwards felt detached from his friends and family.

Edwards had witnessed the highly publicized death of his friend, California National Guardsman Patrick McCaffrey, in June 2004. Edwards was the first to tell Patrick's mother what the military would not: Patrick was shot by the Iraqi soldier he was training. The Pentagon eventually acknowledged these claims in 2006.

Edwards himself was also injured by a roadside bomb that left him with a limp.

"I was happy to be home; I was happy to be with my wife and daughter again," Edwards said. "But even with family, I just didn't feel like I belonged anymore. At least, I didn't feel like I belonged around people like my wife and daughter, who were just innocent."

Suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Edwards withdrew. One particularly dark night, he called Patrick's mother, Nadia McCaffrey, who had been counseling many veterans who had served with her son. Edwards had locked himself in a room, and wouldn't come out, he told Nadia, until he understood what was happening to him.

The next day, Nadia arranged for Edwards to get help -- not through treatment at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, but at a monastery in Oregon. Edwards' plight solidified what Nadia had already been thinking: Struggling war veterans need to get back to the land to find peace.

In 2007, Nadia created the Veterans’ Village, an organization seeking farmland where veterans can work and rehabilitate. Construction is nearly finished on a farm in Sonoma County, California, and additional "villages" are planned for upstate New York and North Carolina.

"The only thing that helped him was to get him to a different state of mind," she said. "I hear it over and over [from vets] that they just want to be out in nature. Why? Because its freedom. It's not a challenge. And it's really satisfying for them when they plant something and watch it grow. It's not for everybody. But many of the veterans will find peace this way."

An Unfamiliar Life

Earlier this month, CBS reported that over 120 veterans committed suicide each week in 2005. Around the same time, a U.S. Army survey found that 25 percent of active-duty soldiers and 50 percent of reservists were receiving or needed mental health services after combat. Almost a quarter of America's homeless population are war veterans.

"Our veterans are coming home, but they're not being taken care of the way they should," Nadia said. Spit out by the war machine, veterans often encounter red tape and hoops at the VA.

"Most vets, when they come back, especially the younger vets, they don't realize the benefits they have because the military doesn't tell them," Edwards said. "And the VA doesn't exactly say, 'Hey, come on back to the VA, we'll help you out.' They don't advertise. You don't know where to get help. You're lost."

Along with being rebuffed by the VA, Edwards said it was difficult when his family tried to understand what he had been through in Iraq.

"You already feel awkward enough about what you've gone through," Edwards said. "But [your family is] sitting there trying to understand you instead of accepting you; it makes you feel even more detached."

Day-to-day tasks became difficult for Edwards. Being in a crowd of people was especially trying. "There were a lot of crowds [in Iraq], a lot of confusion and activity going on," Edwards said. "When I get out in crowds and around a lot of people, I become very anxious and that army training, that hyper-vigilance of wanting to pay attention to everything and everybody and look for escape routes, that kicks in."

Nadia, who has perhaps stepped in to help mentor veterans the way she would have comforted her own son, says soldiers like Edwards are just not easily able to reintegrate into society.

"The life that was so familiar to them in the past has become something completely foreign to them," Nadia said. "They don't fit anymore. They don't function as the father, the husband, or the son that they were."

When Nadia first began envisioning the Veterans’ Village, she asked Edwards to join her. He agreed, and is now a board member of the organization.

Edwards is hopeful that a farming environment will be healing for veterans. "It's peaceful and tranquil," he said. "You're getting back to nature. You're getting back to the earth. Just the serenity of being on a farm will really help a great number of vets struggling with PTSD or finding their place in society again."

Veterans Make New Farmers

Nadia and Edwards aren't alone in their back-to-the-land philosophy. They're joined by dozens of other organizations and small farms across the country looking to place struggling vets in agricultural communities.

Along with assisting Nadia with acquiring the land for the first Veterans’ Village in California, the organization Farms Not Arms is helping veterans connect with seasonal jobs and internships on farms across the nation. The organization is supported by the Family Farm Defenders, Global Exchange, and a long list of farms and businesses.

Farms are "a place to give [vets] work and vocational training and just a healthy living environment," said Michael O'Gorman, one of the founders of Farms Not Arms.

Another coalition, the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, is bridging the relationship between farmers and vets. And the organization Veteran Homestead has built "Victory Farm," a supportive housing program for veterans located on an 80-acre working organic vegetable farm in New Hampshire.

O'Gorman says the agriculture push is not one-sided. Just as veterans have been affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so too have rural and farming communities in the United States. According to a 2007 Carsey Institute study, young adults from rural areas enlist in the military at disproportionately higher rates than other areas because of lack of other opportunities. The study concluded that the death rate for rural soldiers was 48 percent higher than the rate for soldiers from the city or suburbs.

"We're in such dire need of new farmers that maybe by bringing the veterans onto the farms as a place to heal, we can also hopefully find some new young blood to go into agriculture," O'Gorman said. "It's kind of a mutual self-help thing."

Since its inception, Farms Not Arms has been highlighting the affects of U.S. militarism on rural communities. He said farmers are "being written off, or sacrificed for this war." Their anti-war message is rooted in opposing the "enormous waste of resources" for war that threatens farm work, according to the Web site.

"We're really on the front lines of this war because of the heavy tolls it's taking on the rural communities," O'Gorman said. "And we're on the front line of global warming because we deal with it in our vocation. We're dealing with the loss of farmers and farm land. So we're really seeing all of these issues tied together as upside-down priorities of our country."

O'Gorman, who has been farming for 37 years, says the biggest farming crisis is the lack of new, young farmers. "With free trade agreements, people just think we can get the food from somewhere else," he said. "I don't think that's healthy for our national security, or for the quality of our life or our food. We're going to wake up one day and regret that we didn't train a new generation of people how to feed ourselves."

For Edwards, he's just hoping a little farm work will go a long way in helping veterans. "I don't care what war, what era. I just want better help and better care for any and all veterans."

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