Green Care: A Source of Healing for Veterans

For some veterans recovering from stress and trauma, working and being in the presence of nature – a healing process called green care – offers a healing hand.

| December 2014

  • Green Care
    Green care provides supplemental healing processes for individuals who are suffering from post-traumatic stress or other trauma.
    Photo by Fotolia/jillchen
  • Field Exercises
    “Field Exercises,” by Stephanie Westlund, explores complementary approaches to conventional therapeutic and medical interventions that offer hope to veterans who are searching for a way to ease back into civilian life while recovering from stress and trauma.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

  • Green Care
  • Field Exercises

Connecting with nature has the ability to help a lot of people, including veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress and trauma. In Field Exercises (New Society Publishers, 2014), author Stephanie Westlund shares the compelling stories of men and women who are finding relief from the effects of their military experiences through outdoor activities including farming and gardening. This excerpt, which discusses the presence of green care in North America, and how individuals in the U.S. and Canada can benefit from it as treatment, is from Chapter 11, “Making a Case for Green Care in North America.”

Overview of Green Care

In the past 100 years, many of us have come to lead increasingly urban lives that seem disconnected from nature; we often forget that we and our own bodies are nature, too. I used the words “seem disconnected,” because we continue to rely on nature for all our needs: food, clothing, water, housing and electricity. Everything that surrounds us, in our homes and offices, at malls and supermarkets, comes from the Earth, even when the final forms are no longer recognizable as such. If you are reading this in paper format, the page on which these words are printed was once a tree, and the inks are derived from vegetable sources. If you are reading it digitally, the metals and metalloids that make up your e-reader or computer were mined from the Earth, and the plastic casing is derived from petroleum, itself the fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.

The remembrance of our own nature is even found in our language, where the English word human comes originally from the Latin humus, which quite literally implies that humans are of the earth, soil or ground. Similarly, the Hebrew word for man, adam, comes from the Hebrew adamah meaning “ground.” This notion of being human, as connected to the Earth and soil, points to one of the central insights of this article: that human bodies and minds are inseparable from the sensible world. With this in mind, it simply makes sense that nature provides an important context for healing.

Green Care in North America

There is no organized discussion of green care in the US and Canada, particularly at national and health care levels. Indeed, some recent moves, such as the Canadian government’s decision in 2009 to close prison farms, suggest a level of hostility toward green care. In Chapter 2, Keith Tidball from Cornell University confirmed that there is sometimes resistance within the military community and the US Veterans Administration to green care, something he considers to be a major challenge in his work to advocate outdoor recreation for former military personnel. For example, several years ago, Tidball worked with a group at Fort Drum to create a companion gardening program for military families, where both the deployed soldier and the family at home received an earthbox or community garden plot. This program gave the families a common experience to talk about while the soldier was away. “That worked pretty well, but there was resistance to it,” Tidball explained. Indeed, he continued, a lack of support from Commanding Officers “kills a whole line of horticultural therapy that could be very useful."

I believe, however, that the veterans’ stories shared here provide evidence of a veteran-led green care movement in North America. First Lady Michelle Obama might also be promoting a form of green care in her Let’s Move campaign’s emphasis on vegetable gardening. And healing gardens (also referred to as therapeutic gardens or restorative gardens) are beginning to gain popularity in some hospitals and other types of health care facilities, both for veterans and the wider community.

Since 2008, for example, the Warrior and Family Support Center (WFSC) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, has operated a large therapeutic garden, complete with shrubs, trees, perennials, vegetables, a water feature and extensive walking trails. The garden is available to veterans in the WFSC treatment program and their families. The plans for a new facility at the Irwin Army Community Hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, incorporate a healing garden. And to curtail stress levels amongst officers, city police in Vancouver, BC, Canada recently started a rooftop vegetable garden.



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