Adam Burke returned home from Iraq after nine years of military service with a Purple Heart award for bravery. But, suffering from both physical and emotional injuries, he did not feel prepared to enter the traditional workforce. During the third annual, four-day long Coalition for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans (CIAV) conference in Washington DC on May 11th, Burke described the one activity that finally helped him: farming.
After a few minutes of listening to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) Veteran Burke describe “the peace and fulfillment” he gains from working outdoors—a peace and fulfillment he was not able to find in the therapy offered by traditional doctors—the connection between agriculture and veterans becomes crystal clear.
Agriculture is more than just a way of producing food, according to the speakers on the panel “Rural Jobs for Returning Rural Veterans.” It can also be seen as a way to heal the physical and emotional wounds of war, as well as a source of meaningful employment for returning soldiers.
Michael O’Gorman is founder and executive director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), an organization that helps place returning Iraq and Afghan veterans at small-scale organic farms. There, they can learn new skills while also making the often difficult transition back into civilian life. O’Gorman explained, “Farming provides a unique opportunity for soldiers to find peace and quiet, feed their community and their family, while restoring the farming heartland of this country.” (See also: Produce During Wartime: Veterans Receive Farmer Training, Participate in Local Food Movement)
Twenty percent of the men and women returning home from war in Afghanistan and Iraq last year, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to a RAND Corporation Report on military casualties and injuries. And unemployment numbers for veterans ages 18-24 were up to 21 percent last year, five percent higher than the non-serving population in the same age group. Though the United States Department of Veterans Affairs offers therapy and medical treatment for returning soldiers, many veterans find they need something more.
“The best way to heal was to provide therapy for myself,” said Burke. “I needed something more than medication. I needed to get outside and feel a real sense of purpose again, and that is what farming has given me.”
With the help of FVC, Burke founded Veterans Farm in Florida. He hopes to provide paid work and horticulture therapy for other returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and other disabilities that often affect veterans. Emphasizing the sense of peace and community—and the income—that farming can provide, Burke says that the goal of FVC, and Veterans Farm, is to “help reintegrate veterans back into the community. We put them to work in the field, and then we say ‘go work in the market, sell the produce and go get out in the community, meet your neighbors while you’re providing them with this great service.”
Other organizations represented on the panel included Veterans Green Jobs (VFC), an organization that provides job training for veterans and helps them enter green job sectors such as energy efficiency, energy retrofitting, renewable energy, and environmental conservation and restoration. Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots at the University of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture is a program to help transition veterans into careers in agriculture as business, farm or ranch owners. And the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service provides a number of funding and support opportunities for beginning and established farmers in the United States.