By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved)
Last year, an Afghanistan war veteran who had decided to kill himself drove to a century-old farm in the evergreen foothills of Skagit County, Wash., as a final trip before he died. A friend had long encouraged him to visit the former dairy operation turned organic vegetable farm. No pressure. No expectations. Just a chance to hang out with fellow veterans as they planted seeds, pulled weeds and harvested produce.
That first visit was followed by a second, a third and then several more, until Collin McInnis was focused on bringing life out of the soil rather than taking his own. These are the fruits of Growing Veterans, a small but potent nonprofit in northwest Washington co-founded by a former member of the 2/7 Marines – which has the highest suicide rate among young male veterans – and a civilian mental health counselor who turned to farming to ease her own stress.
“I can say with absolute confidence there are at least two or three veterans who, because of their involvement with us – being out in the field,connecting with other veterans – were prevented from committing suicide,” says Marine Corps veteran Chris Brown, co-founder of Growing Veterans.
“I suspect there are a lot more. I wish all the veterans from my unit who are gone could have experienced this.”
Although Growing Veterans is barely five years old, it’s experiencing remarkable success helping combat veterans ease back into civilian life, in part by reducing their isolation and eliminating the stigma of getting mental health treatment.
“One of the biggest problems is that you are a badass,” says Navy veteran Kenny Holzemer, executive director of Growing Veterans and a member of American Legion Post 7 in Bellingham. “You don’t need help from anybody. You don’t want to be seen as weak. We make it OK for them to tell their story, OK to shed a tear, OK to seek help.”
“It’s not like sitting in a windowless office with a therapist asking, ‘How does that make you feel?’” adds Mike Hackett, who served on assault ships during a 14-month tour with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam. “Out here, they can just be who they are.”
Brown had sustained substantial wear and tear by the time he left the Marines after three combat tours in 2008. He was wounded during his second deployment and has a mild traumatic brain injury, PTSD and other conditions. He struggled to find his identity in the civilian world. He struggled with anger. He drank.
Brown’s father intervened after he ended up in a fistfight with a childhood friend and told him how a similar incident in the Navy had prompted him to get counseling. “He didn’t leave that night until I promised to get help,” Brown says.
A counselor at the Bellingham Vet Center arranged to meet Brown on Veterans Day. “He could tell over the phone I was probably somebody he should meet with right away,” Brown says. “His desire to go above and beyond inspired my trust in him. The rapport with him was amazing.”
The counselor, a retired Army medic who had dealt with his own trauma, suggested Brown try growing plants as a means of reconnecting with the world around him. Because his apartment balcony was the only available space, Brown got a large flowerpot and planted mint, cucumber and other vegetables. It was a disaster. But rather than quit, he planted larger and larger gardens.
“You are bringing life into the world and using it to sustain your own life,” he says. “After being around war and death, it was pretty cool and therapeutic.”
A year later, Brown became a work-study student at the Vet Center, where another Vietnam veteran delivered a prescient warning. “He looked me in the eye and said that when he got home, a lot of his friends committed suicide,” Brown says.
In the seven years since that conversation took place, 16 men from his unit have killed themselves, including men he knew quite well. This on top of the 41 men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment who were killed during Brown’s combat deployments. In 2012, VA reported that Washington state tied Idaho for the highest veteran suicide rate in the nation.
Brown’s original college plan – finish a computer information systems degree so he could avoid dealing with people and his PTSD – went out the window.
“I realized as much as it sucked to go overseas and lose a lot of people, I was fortunate to be here,” he says. “The way to honor that and honor the guys who didn’t make it back was to make a career helping others transition home.”
He switched his major to human services, then spent a year working on an organic farm after earning his bachelor’s degree. That persuaded him that farming was an ideal venue for coaxing veterans out of isolation and helping them complete their journeys home. He started searching for someone with sustainable-agriculture expertise, which led him to Christina Wolf.
Like Brown, Wolf knows the devastating consequences of suicide. She had been a trauma and grief counselor whose clients included children of parents who had taken their own lives. After seven years of this emotionally intense work, she closed her practice.
“I had a client who was a Vietnam veteran who committed suicide,” Wolf says. “That really left a dent in my heart.”
Wolf found solace working on the Bellingham Food Bank’s organic vegetable farm. She got a call from Brown about the time that program ended. She immediately wanted to help.
“I thought, ‘This is what I was born to do,’” she says. “It made so much sense to get people out of their apartments and into the field nurturing life. It is deeply satisfying. It is good for the human spirit.”
Brown and Wolf co-founded Growing Veterans in early 2012 and rented the same acreage that Wolf had managed for the food bank. “I just knew veterans would take to farming,” she says. “They know how to set selfish needs aside, work as a team, focus on a mission.”
Within a year, Growing Veterans started the first farmer’s market at the Seattle VA Medical Center. Open every Thursday between May and December, it is an ideal place to connect with veterans. And the demand for its organic produce is high. The first time Growing Veterans set up a booth at the Seattle VA, it sold out in two hours.
“We brought a lot more stuff the next week,” Wolf says.
Many of the servicemembers who first got involved with Growing Veterans knew Brown from Western Washington University, where he studied. Joel Swenson, a former airborne medic, had also struggled since leaving the Army in 2011. He was surprised by what he found here.
“It blew me away how much camaraderie there is,” says Swenson, who has gone from volunteer to manager of Growing Veterans’ Starbird Farm near Mount Vernon. “It’s kind of like being back in the Army. We pull each other’s weight. And just being able to interact with other veterans who have been through the same struggle helped me a lot.”
Scotty Irwin, on the other hand, discovered Growing Veterans while trying to find help for a friend who was struggling with PTSD. In the end, Irwin came to the farm instead. A former combat medic who had a career in emergency medicine, she had experienced significant personal loss, including the suicide of a veteran with whom she had trained.
“I liked the idea of working together collectively and working outside and doing something physical,” says Irwin, Growing Veterans’ market manager and a member of American Legion Post 181 in Lake Stevens. “You are reconnecting with your surroundings. And growing food is nothing short of a miracle.”
Growing Veterans’ small-scale approach to farming provides a safe and relaxed space for veterans to connect while planting and weeding. “(Here) they feel comfortable talking to someone else and they talk more,” Wolf says. “Some veterans probably find this setting more welcoming or less intimidating than a traditional support group.”
“If you share the deepest, darkest concerns of your soul when you are out among the rows of radishes and sweet corn, you know it will stay there,” Holzemer adds.
Getting your hands dirty also has significant physiological and psychological benefits. “Microbes in the soil exude a chemical that is absorbed through your skin, carried to your brain and causes your brain to release serotonin,” Wolf says. “It’s called dirt therapy. It’s as effective as Prozac.”
A Seattle University researcher who is studying Growing Veterans says the preliminary results are impressive.
“It has a significant impact on improving veterans’ emotional and social well-being,” says Arie Greenleaf, an assistant professor of counseling and a Marine Corps veteran. “Some veterans feel less isolated, less lonely and experience more hope about their future. What’s happening there is not due to chance and it’s not due to something random.”
As Growing Veterans flourished, its founders realized they needed to formally train employees and volunteers to assist veterans who are struggling. “Some of our people didn’t have the right listening skills,” Brown says. “Some didn’t have the comfort level or the confidence to use their own story to motivate change in another veteran.”
Brown worked with mental health professionals and veterans to develop a three-day peer support training that is now mandatory for Growing Veterans’ employees. “We learn to recognize the language of isolation,” Holzemer says. “We learn to recognize the language of self-harm.”
“Mental health counseling has a big stigma in the military and, to a certain extent, in society,” Brown adds. “With peer support, you can break it down. You can say, ‘Hey, I talked to somebody, and it helped.’”
Growing Veterans now provides peer support training to regional leaders of The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon. “We realized how needed peer support is,” Brown says. “If we can do this, maybe we can help other veterans service organizations do it as well.”
Today, Growing Veterans raises organic produce on three farms between Lynden and Auburn. They have nine paid staff, 550 members and draw volunteers from a 200-mile radius. They sell between 600 and 1,000 pounds of vegetables a week at the Seattle VA Farmer’s Market and provide produce to a half-dozen food banks. They have had requests for peer support training from individuals and groups in 30 states.
Brown earned his master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington and is seeking a job as a counselor at the same Vet Center where he first got help. He stepped away from day-to-day operations at Growing Veterans to become a licensed counselor but continues to serve as board president.
There are plenty of challenges: the constant need to find funding, concern for the veterans they might not reach in time. But there is no question that this cadre of veterans and civilian volunteers is a force of support for former warriors who are navigating their homecoming, whether they left the military in 1969 or 2016.
They see it in the veterans who go from reticent loners to effusive volunteers. They hear about it from men and women who quietly pull them aside to thank them for reaching out. They read about it in letters from people whose lives they’ve touched.
“It’s those moments when you find somebody who was seriously contemplating suicide but now has decided to live because they have a new purpose and a community of friends who care about them,” Wolf says.
“The bottom line,” Irwin adds, “is that we’re saving lives.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of The American Legion Magazine.