Nearly 4,000 Vermont veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, and many are still dealing with the invisible wounds of the nation’s longest-running war. Some of them, however, have begun to find healing through farming.
Veterans like Brett, for instance, who’s working an old hill farm at the end of a long dirt road in Norwich. Much of the pasture has been taken over by dense shrubs and tall hardwoods. But Brett, who served in the Army, has brought in a small flock of sheep to start reclaiming the soil.
”I’ve never had any ideas that I’d get into farming or agriculture. It just wasn’t what I did,” Brett says. “It’s become something I just can’t live without now.”
Brett’s serious about that last part — farming — he says, has actually saved his life. Because for a long time after he got back from the war, Brett says he wasn’t sure how long he’d last.
“You can never say goodbye to the kind of experience that combat brings,” he says. “It’s just terrible for everybody. There’s no winners, there’s no victory. People are hurt and broken and damaged and gone.”
About 10 years ago, Brett spent a year in Afghanistan. He was, in military speak, what’s known as an “embedded tactical trainer.” He basically turned tribal militias into members of the Afghan National Army. And then, he conducted combat operations with them.
Privacy is important to Brett, so we’re not using his last name.
But he says he’s still haunted by what he witnessed during those operations. And the Brett that came home from Afghanistan, he says, is a very different person than the one who deployed there.
“Prior to going to Afghanistan, I was a very kind of gregarious, outgoing, socializing, I just loved people. And I still do, but it’s different now,” he says.
The smell of diesel, for instance, or even just a loud noise, were enough to send him into a quiet panic.
“And suddenly you find yourself in a parking lot and you’re just looking for a way to get out,” he says. “It’s uncomfortable, and kind of puts other people off.”
And then, Brett found farm animals. This year it’s eight pigs, who spend their days grubbing for food in a massive pen that has access to the woods, clean water and even acorns and apples that fall along the tree line.
Brett says it’s goats that first turned him on to the therapeutic benefits of farming; two problem goats he took on a few years ago from someone trying to get rid of them.
“It sounds silly, but a goat would just come up and just look at you, like, 'hey, life is good, man. The sun’s shining, got clean water, and you’re taking care of me.' And it’s those simple little things that changed the way I look at my life,” Brett says.
Brett’s a full-time homesteader now, tending to his small farm while his wife is at work and his two kids are at school.
He’s worked out a lease arrangement on an abandoned pasture a three-minute ATV ride from his home. And that’s where Brett spends his days now, communing with his pigs and his sheep.
He’s still a farming newbie, making lots of mistakes. But he’s figuring it out as he goes. And he hopes that one day, he’ll be able to invite other struggling vets to his corner of land, and that the soil and the air and the creatures might do for them what they’ve done for him.
For Lucas Papineau, who joined the Vermont National Guard when he was 18 years old, farming has helped repair his relationship with his family.
When Papineau got deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, he was only a few months away from becoming a young dad. Papineau says he was as ready as he could be for the difficulties of war. He says he did not anticipate how tough it would be to come home.
“So me coming back, I wasn’t used to having a kid. I was used to kind of like taking care of myself, and also always being vigilant,” Papineau says. “And so coming back here, coming to family with a child and everything, it was really hard.”
Two hundred free-ranging layers strut around the backyard of the Papineau family home in rural Franklin County. Poultry has become an important part of the Papineaus’ story. To understand why, you need to appreciate how difficult it can be for families to reunite after a deployment. Lucas's wife, Sabrina, says she'd kind of gotten accustomed to life as a single mom.
“Lucas was maybe used to doing something before he left, and I had been doing it for a year, so it was just hard to get back into our roles,” Sabrina Papineau says.
So they carved out new roles, not just as husband and wife and mom and dad, but as partners in a small farming business.
“Farming really brought back a purpose into us being together as a family. Our lives are all about the farm,” Lucas Papineau says.
Life is all about the farm for a lot of veterans these days. The Farmer-Veteran Coalition of Vermont now has more than 80 members, and is growing.
Mark Bowen is the president of the organization, and a full-time farmer himself, in Putney.
Bowen says it isn’t hard to understand why farming holds appeal to people struggling with their experiences in a war zone.
“There’s something to be said for the mental and emotional benefits of seeing something grow,” Bowen says.
And, as it turns out, Bowen says veterans happen to make for good farmers.
“Things like a good work ethic and perseverance, commitment and dedication. They’re all traits you need to be a good soldier, and also be successful as a farmer,” Bowen says.
One Vermonter in particular has been instrumental in organizing the farmer-veteran network in the state. On a recent Sunday, as warm sun burned the morning dew off the cover crops at Wild Roots Farm in Bristol, Jon Turner explained the guiding philosophy behind his unique agriculture operation.
“Everything here is really about understanding, or trying to understand the relationship between space and our relationship to it,” Turner says.
This isn’t a production farm. Turner hosts educational workshops here, where people learn about perennial beds, or pollinator gardens, or pasture management.
For some of the people that come here though, it’s about something else too. Turner makes sure that at least two veterans are here for every class at Wild Roots.
“You know, they come out, and it’s just like that cloak just kind of dissolves for that moment that they’re engaged with an animal or a plant or with the soil. And it’s probably one of the most profound and beautiful things that I’ve seen in my life,” Turner says.
Turner knows that feeling himself. He’s a former Marine who served tours in Haiti and Iraq, where he watched friends die, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
When Turner left the service about 10 years ago, he says the transition was not easy.
“Coming home and not having a sense of purpose, not having to worry about whoever’s to the left and to the right of me, made it difficult,” Turner says. “I had no direction, and I was lost — like, entirely lost.”
He started to find himself again on a 10-by-15 foot garden plot, at the Rock Point School in Burlington.
“When I first touched that soil back in 2009, there was just like something primal that awakened in me that I had no idea existed,” Turner says.
Turner didn’t have any previous gardening experience. But he dedicated himself full time to farming. And as he honed his trade, Turner began helping other struggling vets get into gardening.
“The land was really holding them and cradling them, and I was fortunate enough to see that for what it was and just kind of moved forward into it,” Turner says.
In 2013, he founded the Vermont chapter of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, slowly building up its membership.
He’s since handed off the reins of that organization to another farmer. But Turner’s still the go-to consultant for many farmer-vets.
Michael O’Gorman, the president of the national arm of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, says the organization now has 8,000 members countrywide. The organization helps farmer-veterans access grants and develop business plans.
O’Gorman says there’s one obvious reason veterans are drawn to agriculture.
“It seems to give that sense of purpose and that sense of mission,” O’Gorman says. “And that heals a lot, that helps a lot.”
Turner says in his experience, there’s another reason veterans are drawn to the vocation.
“You have this really amazing sense of camaraderie once more, which has been lacking for these men and women for a long time,” Turner says. “And you just see this sense of life awaken in them once more, and it’s an unbelievable thing.”
Turner says for a lot of vets, including him, things can never be the same after war. But he says he’s found healing in the soil. And he says he plans to help other veterans find it there too.