As of September 2014, there were about 2.7 million American veterans who fought in our recent conflicts. A study conducted by the RAND Corporation found at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. About 50% of these veterans don’t seek help. Emotional vulnerability, access to services, and other problems are barriers for veterans.
In 2013, Chris Brown—a U.S. Marine veteran—sought to change the path of those exposed to stress in combat. After his honorable discharge, Brown pursued a degree in human services from Western Washington University while battling his own PTSD. His counselor suggested gardening. Brown became acquainted with many vets who benefitted from “dirt therapy,” and he germinated the idea for Growing Veterans.
Brown teamed up with a superb staff and wonderful volunteers, including Kenny Holzemer, the non-profit’s executive director. The soft-spoken, kind-hearted Navy retiree spent 22 years working as an Airborne electronic warfare operator. After hanging up his uniform Holzemer bounced around a few jobs, but felt hard-pressed to find a job with a purpose, that is, until he met Chris Brown at WWU in a grant writing class.
The Growing Veterans mission statement reads: “To empower military veterans to grow food, communities, and each other.” They accomplish the task by growing crops on three farms located in Mount Vernon, Lynden, and Auburn. The crops are either sold at farmers markets or donated to community food banks. You’ll see their stand outside the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Medical Center on Thursdays, and find their crops in the Seattle Tilth’s CSA and Good Food Bag programs. Of course volunteers and any veterans in need receive plenty of fresh grown produce, as Holzemer said, “Every bite of that food is important to someone.”
The model is simple, but effective. Veterans come to any of the farms and work the land. “They work shoulder to shoulder with other vets who are finding their way,” Holzemer said. A Peer-Support program adds to the experience. Staff and key volunteers undergo specialized training to better communicate with individuals suffering from trauma symptoms. All the staff members are trained in suicide intervention. Numerous non-profits around the country have reached out to Growing Veterans for more information on the peer-support program sparking a new Train the Trainer program. Additionally, the program has been lauded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and is currently being studied for its benefits at the Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (CINDRR).
The key to Growing Veterans is its informal yet supportive organization. Going out into the field and working with other people who have had similar experiences is beneficial. You don’t have to be a veteran to work the field either—civilian groups often come out and work alongside the veterans. It’s a setting wherein people can shed their worries and concerns to simply focus on nature and growth. Growing Veterans is always looking for help. So far generous donations have significantly grown the farms to include the Blue Diamonds Group funding a wheel chair accessibility project on the Mount Vernon farm. Growing Veterans is on the lookout for individuals with expertise that can be beneficial, funding to renovate on-site quarters for vets down on their luck, and, specifically, a tractor with a scoop in front and 3.PTO in back.
Holzemer felt particularly grateful to everyone who has supported Growing Veterans.“The lives we save are the lives you save when you support us.” On the Mount Vernon farm, overlooking a century-old apple tree and munching on almost peppery zucchini just cut from the vine, he told me there have been numerous vets who spoke highly of the program, but three stuck out in his memory. They are the three who told Holzemer that their association with Growing Veterans deterred them from suicide. That deserves a salute.