Green Care: A Source of Healing for Veterans

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Green care provides supplemental healing processes for individuals who are suffering from post-traumatic stress or other trauma.
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“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.

Connecting with nature has the ability to help a lot of people, including veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress and trauma. InField 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.

The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minnesota, also features a garden. The Center’s clients, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress, can wait for appointments in the garden, and many counselors also spend time there to help them cope with the stress and anguish that come from hearing stories of pain and suffering every day. Many of the staff have also taken up gardening at home. Further, since trauma survivors often suffer from loneliness and isolation, the Center uses gardening “to help people connect with one another and reestablish a sense of trust.”

In Canada, some traumatic stress sufferers are being referred to the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ontario, which prescribes horticulture therapy (both in greenhouses and outdoor gardens) as part of patients’ treatment.

Making Green Care More Available to Veterans

Based on his own journey to recover from post-traumatic stress, LCol Chris Linford advocates that nature-based experiences need to be made more widely available to veterans. In 2011, he spent a week on an Outward Bound Canada Veterans’ Program trip, which he described as “a significant ‘pivot point’ on my personal path to improved health.” And during a conversation with me, he further described the ways that the Outward Bound trip helped him to “return to a childlike humor and innocence.”

Today there is also a growing movement in the US, led by organizations such as the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), and by veterans themselves, to provide opportunities for former military personnel to move into farming. Farming and working outdoors offer possibilities to engage with plants and animals, nurture and cultivate new life and provide healthy food to feed other people. In addition to health gains, veterans becoming involved in farming provides succession planning for American food security, since many current farmers are expected to retire during the next 10 years. Indeed, the main emphasis of the FVC, which has helped more than 1,000 farmer veterans in the past 6 years, is that agriculture provides a viable career option for veterans. “Agriculture is not easy, and veterans have a lot of practical skills,” said Tia Christopher, FVC Chief of Staff. “But they also have a huge strength due to what many of them have lived through that helps them stick it out in a very, very tough secondary career.”

The FVC supports farmer veterans in all areas of agriculture, ranging from small-scale organic operations to conventional ranches and farms. There are often regional differences, Tia explained, wherein veterans living in the central prairies tend to be more attracted to large-scale cattle ranching and farming, while those living on the east and west coasts are more likely to become involved in small-scale sustainable agriculture. And while the FVC emphasizes agriculture as a career option, “we really do stand behind the positive psychological effects,” said Tia. “What I’ve found really interesting is that you hear about equine therapy, but you don’t really hear about cattle therapy. And for my folks who have picked up cattle ranching, it’s amazing how they’ve healed. People with serious injuries and so much anger about having to rebuild their lives and learn how to walk and talk again…for some of them working with the cattle has really helped them.” Tia Christopher has also seen benefits for veterans with brain injuries, who can no longer do their former jobs. “They’ve retrained in agriculture, and not only is it now a viable career option, but it also helps them to continue to heal.”

Tia also emphasized benefits for families. “Families that have been separated over years of multiple deployments become fractured and don’t really know how they fit together, and they have to re-get-to-know their spouse or their dad,” she explained. “And when you have folks that come together for a family farm, it actually helps heal the family. They all have a job, they all contribute, they all build the business together, face tough winters or bad harvests…I’m amazed at what I’ve seen that do for families.”

In my own research and conversations with veterans, I have found that many are gravitating toward small-scale, often organic, farms, a trend Tia Christopher has also seen amongst farmer veterans. “Even though we have veterans representing all different schools of thought when it comes to agriculture, I’ve found anecdotally that the majority of veterans entering this field want to do sustainable agriculture in some way, shape or form,” she told me. “They want it for their own personal health, and then that translates to what they raise for other people, what they want to sell and how they want to live.” And perhaps importantly, as author Sarah Elton put it, “sustainable agriculture needs people. Lots of people.” Indeed, a 2007 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report stated that “organic farms provide more than 30 percent more jobs per [hectare] than non-organic farms and, thus, create employment opportunities.” Accordingly, the work and skills training in farming activities and programs can also contribute to resolving unemployment and homelessness amongst veterans. Educational institutions are becoming involved, too; the University of Nebraska — Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) offers a Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots program to train veterans to become farmers, ranchers and business entrepreneurs.

A number of veteran-owned farms throughout the US have become well-known in recent years for their peer-support initiatives. One example is Archi’s Acres, an organic farm in Southern California run by Colin Archipley, along with his wife, Karen. Archipley is a former Marine Corps infantry sergeant who served three tours in Iraq. Together, the Archipleys run the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program, a six-week course in organics, hydroponics and sustainable agriculture for veterans interested in new careers as farmers. In addition to teaching farming skills, such as planting and irrigation and designing a business plan to facilitate a career change for veterans, “farming offers veterans a chance to decompress,” Archipley told the New York Times. More importantly, it provides a sense of purpose. “It allows [veterans] to be physically active, be part of a unit,” Colin Archipley said. “It gives them a mission statement — a responsibility to the consumer eating their food.” A graduate of the Archipleys’ VSAT program, Mike Hanes, who returned from Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and a traumatic brain injury, said, “One thing I’ve noticed about agriculture is that you become a creator rather than a destroyer.”

Another prominent farmer veteran enterprise is the Veterans Farm, an organic blueberry farm in Central Florida started by Adam Burke, a US Army combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient. He returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and suffering from post-traumatic stress and was urged by his psychiatrist and psychologist to find ways to alleviate his stress. Having grown up on a farm, Burke recalled that some of his best times were spent there: “I remembered being in the outdoors and enjoying working with others. I remember the sound of the birds and the mist from the sprinklers, the wind and the calming effect it had on me.” With help from the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Burke started the handicapped-accessible Veterans Farm, which now provides a six-month fellowship program to promote and support agro-entrepreneurship and ecological horticulture amongst veterans. 

In a YouTube video, Burke told a story about sitting under a tree with a veteran who was suffering from a panic attack; the two men sat together and talked for two hours, feeling a light breeze on their skin under the shade of a tree. At the end of their conversation, the other veteran turned to Burke and said: “Adam, this is the most peace I’ve felt since I’ve been back from war. I can sit in a conference room, I can sit in a medical setting, I can see psychologists all day, but nothing compares to sitting in this chair under this tree on this farm.”

Still other US examples include the 15-acre Veterans’ Garden in West Los Angeles, where veterans cultivate fruits and vegetables in the middle of the city and sell their produce to local restaurants. And in Brockton, Massachusetts, the Veterans Administration Medical Center provides a horticulture therapy program. Twenty-four-year-old Afghanistan veteran Chris Pina said that working in the garden at the VA Center has been important for him: “I’ve learned a lot about plants so far, and actually I’m starting to do it at home now. I see a brighter light.” Several other veterans who work in the garden described how the plant life showed them the ways that life can continue beyond their military experiences.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Field Exercises: How Veterans Are Healing Themselves Through Farming and Outdoor Activities, by Stephanie Westlund and published by New Society Publishers, 2014.

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