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Memorial Day 2016 - Thanking a True Soldier

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The message below was written by Christopher Brown, who co-founded Growing Veterans, a non-profit dedicated to helping veterans from all wars who are experiencing physical and mental trauma from their military service. Chris is moving from the position of Executive Director to that of President. As we approach Memorial Day, a holiday more known for being a day off for baseball or BBQ, we should acknowledge the achievements of veterans like Chris for taking up the shameful slack left by a government that shirks its own responsibility for adhering to what President Lincoln promised, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” I wrote earlier about this organization in an article entitled Growing Veterans where I outlined the excellent results achieved by the group. It is now time to recognize one of its founders. Chris writes:

“Reflection & Transition

In 2008, I left three combat deployments to Iraq & Afghanistan carrying a tremendous amount of survivor’s guilt, due to the fact that forty-one of the Marines from my unit who deployed with me, never made it home to their families. While learning to manage my Post-traumatic Stress (PTS), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and physical injuries, I made a commitment to pursue a life that would bring healing to myself and other veterans who were lucky enough to come home as well. This is the only way I am able to truly recognize and honor those sacrifices. My long term goal would be to become a licensed counselor in order to help veterans who have endured combat trauma. Knowing my ultimate goal was several years away however, I determined to create an organization that could empower military veterans to grow food, communities, and each other.

By 2012, my pursuits had introduced me to many incredible people and experiences, all of which pointed to the reality that using a sustainable farm as the platform for veteran peer-support and broader community engagement, could lead to meaningful outcomes. Not only did I know I would have eternal regrets if I didn’t make an effort, I couldn’t think of a better way to live up to the sacrifices of the “41 Fallen”.

As a result, I put the word out, and stars seemed to align when several people told me I needed to talk to a remarkable person, who would end up helping create the organization. She happened to be a licensed counselor in her former career and had spent the past few years as an organic farmer. Christina Wolf would become Growing Veterans’ Co-founder and continues to be the lifeline of the organization.

Since that first season and over the past three years, we have become a 501 (c) 3 non-profit and grown to over 550 members, 10 paid staff, and three primary farm sites, totaling 43.5 acres. We run a weekly Farmer’s Market stand at the largest VA Hospital in the Pacific Northwest and produce annual yields of nearly 40,000 pounds of vegetables. We’ve certified over 30 trainees in our new Peer Support Training program, launched in January 2016, in order to facilitate a culture of peer support that extends beyond our fields. We’ve been fortunate to receive two national awards for innovation, as well as positive marks and continued evaluations by the federal VA’s Health Services Research & Development (HSR&D) Center of Innovation of Disability and Rehabilitation Research (CINDRR). Individuals and groups from over 30 states around the country have asked us to help them create a project like ours, which has led us to begin developing a robust training program that will invite groups from around the United States to come and learn our model.

We have certainly been busy. Our progress and our successes are largely due to the incredibly hard work and perseverance of our dedicated staff and volunteers, as well as the powerful support of our donors. Growing Veterans would not exist without each and every one of you and I could not be more grateful. You have helped turn an idea into a reality that has made a positive impact on hundreds of lives. A lot has been accomplished, but there is still much work to be done.

I am honored and blessed to play the role I have so far, and I am excited about the future of Growing Veterans. With that, I am writing this letter to formally announce my role with the organization is transitioning from Executive Director, to Board President. I am shifting from everyday tactics and operations, to longer term strategy and governance. As a member of the Board, I will remain a spokesperson and advocate for Growing Veterans and will continue to assist with leadership development. I am redirecting my time to living out my commitment to the 41 Fallen, to the 15 others from my unit who have suicided since, and the 18-22 veterans in the United States who suicide every day, by providing direct therapy to the veterans who have been impacted most by combat trauma. As I mentioned, my long term mission has always been to become a licensed counselor and I cannot think of a better way to pay it forward, than to perform the very service that likely saved my life and my marriage, seven or eight years ago. More importantly, I will be able to spend more time with my family, who have made sacrifices of their own to support me and Growing Veterans.

I write this letter with utmost confidence, because I know this is a perfect opportunity for the organization to stand on its own merit, to empower the people behind it to take complete ownership, and to bring us into our next stage.

I am eager to announce that over the past year, Growing Veterans’ Development Director, Kenny Holzemer, has been preparing to assume the role of Executive Director and help lead us through these next stages of development. Kenny is retired from the Navy, an MBA, and one of the most caring and competent individuals I know. Over the past few months Kenny and I, along with Christina Wolf, have spent countless hours together. We have had several discussions with our staff, and we are ready to see Kenny in action as our new Executive Director. I hope you will have the chance to get to know him soon.

As Growing Veterans enters this exciting new stage of development, I want to say thank you for helping get us this far. I also want to ask that you reflect on what you might be able to contribute, in order to strengthen your support for our mission. We will need all of you more than ever.

If you are reading this as a volunteer, donor, advocate, or staff member—you continue to play a crucial role in the success of Growing Veterans’ mission. I know from firsthand accounts that we are saving lives, but I also know that there are still veterans ending their lives every day. So I am asking that you continue to trust and support our mission of empowering veterans to grow food, communities, and each other—to the fullest extent you are able. I know I will.

-Christopher Brown
Co-founder & President of Growing Veterans”

Thank you, Chris, for your selfless dedication to veterans.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

May 29, 2016

I received an email about this piece in which the sender reminded me that Memorial Day was established to remember the fallen.  I wrote back: “GV is tied tightly to Memorial Day to ensure that those who served do not become casualties to be remembered but productive and healthy citizens.  The citizenry needs to know that.  It is one thing to plant little flags, it is another to plant seeds.”

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Penny Tillson

May 30, 2016

Two brothers, one Army, the other a Marine.

They both had served and returned home.

One toughed it out.

One came back changed. No longer the carefree sweet kid, but withdrawn, moody and sometimes a little scary.

One day he disappeared. His brother went searching, taking his own dog. He decided to look at their favorite childhood adventure sites that they had long ago “conquered” in play and exploration. He heard his missing brother’s dog barking and followed the sounds.

He found the brother, gone from this life, his dog staying by his side.

This Marine had been at the Beirut Barracks. His orders took him away from that site for a few days. He returned to horror. He did not recover. Survivor’s Guilt? A handy title perhaps, but crushing in reality.

Thank you Chris, Kenny, Christina and Growing Veterans. You are needed.

—Penny Tillson

 

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Sherilyn Wells

Jun 08, 2016

Chris Brown is a hero and a visionary, whose brilliant new mission (Growing Veterans) truly serves so many who have not been properly cared for by our government, despite its promises, or, sometimes, even by ordinary citizens who don’t understand the serious nature of Post Traumatic Stress.  I have two family members who courageously served on the front lines of different war zones, only to have to be medically retired, afterwards, due to their PTSD.  One barely avoided suicide before he began the long journey back to his new life.  I cannot pretend to know what someone who survives life in a war zone experiences within themselves, but I can bear witness to how it has affected their lives “on the outside.”  Thank God for people like Chris, who are determined to prove that there IS a way through..

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