Warriors in the Garden

I trudged up a hill that overlooked a small Afghani village. Burdened by a heavy backpack that held a frequency jammer, I also carried a ballistic plate carrier holding 4 plates, camelback: full of water, a chest-full of loaded magazines, first-aid kit, night-vision goggles, a belt around my waist full of 40mm grenades, a helmet on my head, and my rifle equipped with a grenade launcher. I was second-to-last in the formation, and the guy behind me was carrying even more than me, being a machine-gunner who held his own weight in ammo. A compound wall on our left came to a corner at the top of the hill, and as I approached it, I stopped to help him up the rest of the way. My lungs burned, struggling to get enough oxygen. Our platoon had made the left turn onto a walking path that followed the wall along the border of the town, and as we began to do the same, we could see down on the whole village, and our target building on the far end. While we took in the view and began to make our way along the same path, a machine-gun opened up on our position. Bullets cracked overhead and all around us, hitting the wall to our left as we mustered strength we didn’t know we had to sprint down the wall. Puffs of dirt went flying, making it seem like the longest 40 yard dash in the world, weighted down by about 50 lbs of gear at about 13,000 ft. of altitude. Finally, we were able to make it to an opening in the wall, a gate to the compound, and take cover. Right when we made it through, I dropped the cumbersome bag and took up a position behind the wall, laying down in the prone, and returning fire. Then, our own machine guns started, and soon we had A-10 aircraft doing strafing runs, unleashing what seemed like the wrath of God from their spinning cannons while we all cheered.

This small memoir illustrates the adrenaline our soldiers feel while at war. But what’s more than the adrenaline rush, which Sebastian Junger (Author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging) says is “wired into us” and “hormonally supported,” is the brotherhood that warriors feel towards each other. He explains this as “a mutual agreement within a group, that you will put the welfare of the group – the safety of everyone in the group above your own.” It’s the feeling of being a part of something larger than one’s self, and is an integral to the human experience.

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When someone has that magnitude of a selfless connection with their fellow humans, and then are thrust back into the “real-world”, away from all the danger, simplicity, and lack of comforts, they naturally yearn to return to war. Often times, this feeling of detachment coupled with the trauma you’ve faced (witnessing gruesome death/dismemberment and wondering “why not me?”) can lead to a host of mental-health issues unfortunately ending in suicide. When someone loses their purpose, direction, and motivation, everything around them can crumble.

When Victor Versace, the founder of Desert Forge Foundation returned from his second combat deployment with the Army, he had multiple friends commit suicide and a few others drink themselves to death. He decided to try to do something about it, and drew parallels between military service and agriculture. It turns out, being a warrior in the garden can be extremely therapeutic, and helps people feel more connected and present (something the people with post traumatic stress often struggle with). So he set out to inspire the people he served with to join him in the South Valley to grow chile. They operated for a few years on various farms, often drawing crowds of volunteers who wanted to be a part of the Desert Forge story.

I came into the story when I met Vic at Smith’s one day while I was working a job I hated: armed security at a grocery store. We struck up a conversation about the units we served in, talked about his organization, and exchanged numbers. Now I work as the Program Coordinator, and my job consists of working with trainees, volunteers, and other members of the organization on the Rio Grande Community Farm. Lately, since all gatherings have been deemed unsafe, the majority of what I do is plant seed, water them, re-pot transplants, and work in the field. From my perspective as a “combat veteran,” I can say that there is no better therapy than doing manual labor, working towards a goal with other people who have had similar experiences.

The Warrior Farmer Project is a section of Desert Forge Foundation, and its goal is to become a national training program for veterans looking for careers in agriculture. Most recently, the program has provided employment to two veterans over the winter at the Rio Grande Community Farm. In years prior, Desert Forge operated on “partner farms” where volunteers and trainees would work the land. These farms vary from orchards to hops and chile fields. The program is currently undergoing structural changes that will make it more formal. This will include an application process, a standard curriculum and schedule, as well as a uniform. For more information about the organization, please visit our website.

As times change, we (the farming community) are forced to come up with new solutions to new problems. There are new developments every day, and every day our food systems become more and more stressed, and soon, we worry that imported food will become less and less viable to feed the masses. This is placing increasing importance on teaching more people how to grow their own vegetables, and we believe that a resurgence of the Victory Gardens of WW2 will be an important part of bolstering our food security. In their glory days during the second world war, “the US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables, allowing the farmers to supply troops overseas with food while the people back home supplemented their diets with the food they grew themselves.” The more people we can get involved in supplying themselves with vegetables, the better, as we are already seeing major changes in the current system as it struggles to adjust to the changing landscape.

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-Posted by Tyler

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