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."
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.
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."