Center of Innovation on Disability & Rehab Research (CINDRR)
Growing Veterans, A Partnership That Keeps Growing
Growing Veterans was founded by a combat wounded USMC Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and a former mental health counselor who was interested in farming. Chris Brown, the former Marine corporal who saw several tours of duty in Iraq's Anbar and Afghanistan's Helmand provinces, was at a crossroads when he returned to the states. He wanted to go back to school, but at the same time, connect to nature and the land. "As part of my healing process, I started growing food as a way to reconnect with my surroundings," said Brown. He was wounded and suffered a traumatic brain injury during three combat deployments. "I could see it was helping me and I figured, why not try to bring that to a larger scale?"
Brown founded the Washington state nonprofit Growing Veterans in 2013 while earning a master's degree in social work at Western Washington University. He thought that helping other Veterans connect to the land while learning a marketable skill might be beneficial to the Veterans and their community. The mission and vision of Growing Veterans is: to empower military veterans to grow food, community, and each other, and to end the isolation that leads to veteran suicide.
The GV farms, near Mt. Vernon, WA, are about 40 acres and provide food for sale at local farmers markets throughout the area, including the local VA in Puget Sound and the Burlington Farmers Market. The farm gives Veterans an opportunity to learn farming skills but also learn organizational/business development, fundraising, business and community networking, and lead educational projects. It is an opportunity to help out at the farm and hang out with other Veterans who share similar experiences as they help the Veterans and local community.
For community members, Growing Veterans (GV) offers the experience of working with Veterans and learning their stories and maybe leaning a skill at the same time. Brown says “…it shows our community that Veterans are assets and allies in the sustainable agriculture movement. The honor and support we’ve received from the community has been invaluable.”
During the growing season, the GV farm supplies kale, broccoli, beets, cauliflower, lettuce, and herbs. Even off-season, during mid-January, volunteers are working in greenhouses replenishing and refurbishing the raised beds with new and recycled soil. Outside, they are rejuvenating the soil by burning off weeds and introducing organic material via cover crops.
Growing Veterans is the first program of its kind in the U.S., says Karen Besterman-Dahan, a qualitative core director and medical anthropologist with the Veterans Affairs' Center of Innovation on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Tampa, Florida. While many VA centers have farmers markets, she explains, the Seattle VA and Growing Veterans created the first site in the country where Veteran-owned or -run farms can sell their produce back to Veterans.
Besterman-Dahan has conducted studies on GV and published several articles with Brown about the usefulness of this kind of "agrotherapy" (see below). Initially, she and other CINDRR researchers met Brown and Growing Veterans members through the Farmer Veteran Coalition and started working with them on an evaluation funded through an Office of Rural Health (ORH) grant. Currently, they are evaluating the GV Peer Support Training Program, funded by the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The GV Peer Support Program was developed by Veterans and mental health professionals using nationally recognized best practices in peer support. The program is designed for Veterans, civilians, and organizations committed to the wellness of Veterans. Learning objectives include learning the symptoms, causes, and cycles of stress and PTSD and facilitating healthy conversation and outcomes.
She found that the camaraderie that GV promotes and the opportunity of working with the land can produce reported improvements in depression, sleep, overall health and mental health, and reintegration for Veterans. "First of all, you're doing something life affirming," she says. "They're used to blowing up things, that's what they're trained to do, and now they're growing life. They're working side-by-side, feeling a sense of mission and empowerment and purpose that was missing in their life. It's not forced, it happens organically and naturally."
Brown sees a bright future for Growing Veterans; he hopes to create a regional model that could be in place in three to five years. "I was an infantryman. I was taught how to fight wars," he says. "Being around other Veterans who have been through the same thing makes us feel more normal. It helps us feel like we belong back home."
Additional information available at http://theweek.com/articles/722278/nonprofit-teaching-vets-farm and https://growingveterans.org/news-events/newsroom.html
Besterman-Dahan, K, Chavez, M, Njoh E. Rooted in the Community: Assessing the Reintegration Impacts of Agriculture on Rural Veterans. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2017 Aug 23. pii: S0003-9993(17)30548-8. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2017.06.035.
Brown C., Besterman-Dahan K, Chavez M, Njoh E, Smith B. (2016) “It gave me an excuse to get out into society again”: Decreasing Veteran Isolation through a Community Agricultural Peer Support Model. Journal of Veteran Studies. 1 (1).
Besterman-Dahan K, Chavez M, Bendixsen C, Dillahunt-Aspillaga C. Community Reintegration of Transitioning Veterans: An Overview of Agricultural Initiatives. In: Veterans: Political, Social and Health Issues. Editor: M Townsend, Nova Science Publishers, 2016.