Farm helps traumatized veterans re-enter civilian life

For disabled veterans, the transition between military and civilian life unfolds on a farm

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — About 20 miles southwest of Jacksonville's center, buzzards circle over pine forests. Below, rows of potted blueberry plants stand ready for winter. Underneath rain covers, datil pepper plants wait out storms. It's so quiet, the only sounds are the wind and the occasional small tractor rumbling by.

"It's peaceful. It's quiet out here," Shaun Valdivia says in a low voice. "You hear the birds. It's easy on the brain, for you to think about or not think about certain things."

The quiet matters to Valdivia. The soft-spoken Marine vet with a buzz cut was so reclusive after his medical discharge from the military that he barely left his house.

"I wasn't social at all. I didn't want to see any of my old friends. I had every symptom you could have for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)," he recalls. "I didn't know it at the time until I went and got it checked out by the doctors."

Shaun Valdivia, center, on the farm.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

In addition to PTSD, Valdivia was diagnosed with depression and traumatic brain injury, from the series of concussions he suffered while serving in Afghanistan's Helmand province in 2009. He and his squad regularly battled local militants and their improvised roadside bombs.

"It was difficult. Sometime I'd want to deny that I had those injuries. Sounds and smells and sights would make me think about it," he says. That he can speak so easily about this now is testament to the progress he has made since arriving to volunteer at the Veterans Farm in Jacksonville, founded by another veteran, Adam Burke.

"Adam invited me out. It was the mid–dead center of August. They were out here planting blueberries," Valdivia recalls, adjusting the sleeve on his right arm. Just underneath is a tattoo of Felix the Cat. Felix is Valdivia's middle name. "I put on my fatigue pants and boots and sweated it out with them. I just felt this release of pressure off my shoulders. To breathe fresh air, to be here with people who'd been through the same stuff as me."

He stayed, working at the farm for the next two years. Today the once shy 30-year-old is in charge of the farm's public relations. He's the one making calls, reaching out to the media, doing interviews and organizing tours on the farm.

The sustainable organic farm is one of several that have sprouted up across the country to providing a healing avenue for disabled veterans who have left the familiarity of military life and now struggle to be part of society.

With about 30 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars reporting experiences of PTSD, finding a job for veterans in a struggling economy is made even more difficult by what has now been termed the invisible wounds of war.

The national average of disabled veterans who are unemployed is about 6.5 percent. The rate for fully able veterans is 7.1 percent, close to the national civilian rate of 7.3 percent.

While many corporations have implemented hiring programs to bring veterans into the workforce, some have conditions that might disqualify those who come back with disabilities. Some programs require veterans to apply within 12 months of being honorably discharged, a problem for those who need more time to recover from physical and emotional trauma.

I said, ‘I have zero tolerance for those who don’t show up to work.’

After Wal-Mart kicked off its corporate campaign to hire veterans — 100,000 over the next five years — Steven Ellsberry decided to give it a shot.

Medically retired last November after serving as a lead gunner in Iraq, "lots of falling off mountains in Afghanistan" and working with the Army's Warrior Transition Unit, which focuses on helping returning soldiers integrate back into civilian life, he assumed that his leadership skills and work experience would help position him for a management job at the corporate giant.

Then came the interview, in front of a panel.

"They asked how what I did in the Army compared to what happened in the civilian world," Ellsberry recalls. "I said, 'I have zero tolerance for people who don't show up to work. That's the way it was in the Army. If they didn't show up to work, I wondered, Were they in jail or the hospital? Nine times out of 10, it was because they didn't care, and if they didn't care, I didn't want them.'"

Pulling his Purple Heart cap down over his forehead as he tells the story, he continues, "A couple of people on the panel liked that answer."

Then a woman on the panel asked what was the hardest decision he had to make during the war and how he would apply that lesson to the civilian world. It was a question he couldn't answer, he says.

"I said, 'Ma'am, I'm not trying not to answer the question, but I was combat arms, and I hope you can understand what I'm trying to say.'"

"I finally told her, the hardest decision was whether I needed to squeeze the trigger and kill someone and knowing I was going to have to live with that for the rest of my life," Ellsberry says. "And she looked at me, and the panel looked at her like, Are you serious?"

A few days later he got a letter from Wal-Mart telling him they had found someone else.

He found his way to Burke, the 36-year-old recent recipient of the Presidential Citizenship Medal for his efforts creating opportunities for disabled veterans to find fulfillment in solid hard work.

Steven Ellsberry at Veterans Farm.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

"Adam's a Purple Heart too," says Ellsberry. "He's not going to ask you a million questions. The first words out of his mouth to me were, 'Nothing's easy here. You're going to work. You're going to work. The rewards are going to come out of what you do.'"

Ellsberry has been at the farm for six months now, as manager. And he recently became the proud owner of a herd of goats, complete with an Anatolian sheepdog named Pepsi.

"Those goats," says Ellsberry, shaking his head. "Never thought in a million years that anybody would ever come up to me and say, 'Steve, let's go get you some goats.' When you come from where I come from and you work for everything you got, that means a lot."

No one lives on the Veterans Farm, says Valdivia. That's part of the process. "Because Adam wants to reintegrate the vets, waking up at the right time to make it to work on time," he points out. "If they move to a corporate job, they're not showing up late. We structured it so they're doing what they know how to do."

Unlike other veterans' programs, the Veterans Farm gets no assistance from the government.

Indeed, there's much of the military lifestyle apparent at the farm. And that makes it easier for everyone to acclimate.

"We work 'em hard. And I'm a true believer in hard work. An idle mind's the devil's playground. These guys are sitting at home watching TV, drawing a check — that's when they get into trouble," Burke says as we drive from one seven-acre lot to another. "They come in with TBI (traumatic brain injury), PTSD. Some have drug issues, a lot of issues. You never know what you're going to encounter when you get here."

The ginger-haired Burke has been running the farm since 2009, and it is slowly growing. Every season he takes on five or six new post-9/11 veterans, each of whom gets a $6,000 stipend for a six-month program that trains them to work on other farms and, perhaps, one day manage their own. They learn about irrigation and nutrition in addition to accounting and organizational skills. Everyone else is a volunteer, including Burke, who donates his disability check to the farm as well as all the outside money he can drum up.

"We don’t turn a profit here. What we do is we sell our peppers and our blueberries, and that money goes right back into the program and the farm," he says. When he's not on the farm, he's fundraising, developing corporate sponsorships. Donors paid for the lots; longhorn cattle now graze in one.

Unlike other veterans' programs, the Veterans Farm gets no assistance from the government. Its funding comes from private donors and fundraising events.

Burke, by his own admission a redheaded stepchild — his stepfather is former special forces — says the main factors behind what he does every day are helping veterans and helping bullied children.

"I got bullied most of my life," he says. "My stepfather, they called him Rambo —he could swing through trees. I wanted to be a tough guy like my dad. I wanted to pull people from burning cars." It was one of the reasons he joined the military.

"Working with children is a big thing for me. I see the kids being bullied, especially those with disabilities — it eats me up." He now helps out on Berry Good Farms, a horticultural program for special-needs children.

When asked why he's doing this and if there should be government-funded programs to help prepare disabled veterans for the civilian workplace, Burke responds, "I agree. I wish there was." He says he's here because he sees a need that isn't being filled elsewhere.

While helping veterans find their place in the world after war is a major motivation for Burke, just as critical is how their treatment is perceived by the next generation of potential soldiers, sailors and Marines.

"If you don't take care of these vets, I guarantee you their children are not going to enlist in the military," he says. "It's hard to find good-quality people, and if they see their fathers and uncles coming back and you're not taking care of them and there's not something for them if they get injured, I guarantee you're going to have a hard time pulling people in to join the military."

From left, Adam Burke, Ellsberry and former Marines Trey Evans and Valdivia.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

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