Growing Veterans

By On
• In Bellingham,

Growing Veterans (GV) was organized locally a few years ago to assist veterans who are having problems adjusting to life after their military service, especially those who served in combat zones. The organization was the brainchild of Christopher Brown, a Marine who served with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Iraq and Afghanistan. His unit was subsequently and heavily dogged by suicides after its members returned from the war zone. (See In Unit Stalked by Suicide, Veterans Try to Save One Another - NYTimes 19 Sep 2015) We know that in this country 18 to 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Christopher thought that through the process of growing food, veterans instead would learn new ways to connect, coming out of their isolation while also acquiring farming skills. From the Growing Veterans site: “Our vision is to end veteran suicide by targeting the root cause: isolation. Using the farm as the platform, we provide a space where veterans can work together, support each other, and engage with the broader community in order to have a full and successful transition home.”

Several years later, Growing Veterans has over 475 members, about 60% of whom are veterans. Twelve staff members guide the activities of three farms where the vets grow produce. The Skagit farm consists of approximately 40 acres, however plans at this point are to farm up to 5 acres. The Lynden area farm off Meridan is about 3 acres. In 2016 they will also run a 1/2 acre plot of organic land on Seattle Tilth's Red Barn Ranch property in Auburn. Between 60-80 vets and other members are involved in the farms' activities about twice a month during the growing season. Off season, the activities consist of project planning and development. This winter there will be a three day peer support training program put into place to “equip all of the current vets with the knowledge, skills, and awareness to be highly effective peer-support mentors and will set standards for future engagement and communication among all of the veterans. Designed by vets, for vets, and vetted by veteran counselors - this training will be one of the most comprehensive and innovative peer-support trainings that’s ever existed.”

Another positive contribution of the organization is the actual provision of produce for a number of local markets, restaurants and charitable organizations such as the Semiahmoo Resort, Casa Que Pasa restaurant and the Bellingham Food Bank. Growing Veterans also has partnered in fundraising activities with businesses and organizations like the Kulshan Brewery and Sudden Valley Golf Club. This aspect dovetails with “grow local” movements and provides organic produce to the local community. (See the video here) Growing Veterans also has partnered with “Outpost” farming and food organizations such as Seattle Tilth. Growing Veterans is a regular at the Seattle VA Hospital Market where they sell produce or even donate boxes of food to some of the homeless vets they encounter.

Currently, there is a proliferation of “charitable” organizations springing into being, ostensibly (and at times ineffectively) to assist veterans. This appears to be a reaction to the miserable failure on the part of our government to provide the necessary funding to adequately treat those vets with financial, physical and psychological problems following their service, above all, those with experience in war zones. One might ask then just how effective Growing Veterans is in providing support.

Interestingly, an element of the Veterans Administration (CINDRR - Center of Innovation of Disability and Rehabilitation Research), located in Florida, recently completed a study of Growing Veterans and the results were very positive. More specifically, the purpose of the study was to “systematically assess the impact of Growing Veterans on veterans, their families and community stakeholders.” The veterans reported benefits such as feeling more connected, and having an improved sense of purpose. Family members and stakeholders reported an increased ability to relate to veterans and to each other. This is especially gratifying in that the civilian community is nowadays virtually cut off from both active duty military and veterans in general. These results were briefed at a town hall meeting in September to members of Growing Veterans and representatives of local organizations, including some of our government representatives. The report has yet to be released to the public.

Several months ago, I had lunch with Growing Veterans founder, Christopher Brown. I had seen an article on the organization earlier in the year and, as a Vietnam veteran, was interested to see what this home-spun outfit was actually doing for former soldiers. Weeks later, I found myself at their farm off King Tut Road talking to five veterans, four from recent “conflicts” and one from “my conflct,” Vietnam. The Vietnam veteran had actually served near the place I had been assigned, but I also felt an instant connection to the young veterans who had mostly been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is often the case among vets who “connect” through their unspoken experiences of service. Having undergone similar training, the use of military jargon and the common experiences of the sights, sounds and smells of war are mutually understood without verbalizing them. Unfortunately, providing such connectedness with families and members of the community, who never served in a combat zone, is much more difficult and time consuming given the all-volunteer force of today and its relative isolation from the American people. It is these feelings of connectedness that Growing Veterans seeks to foster.

Growing Veterans is a non-profit organization with a 501(c)3 designation since October 8, 2014. The group needs support for its innovative Peer-Support Trainings, empowering vets to be highly effective peer-supporters. It needs funds to maximize its farm-to-market efficiency, allowing them to bring in revenue to support their programs. They aspire to develop projects that will provide job opportunities for veterans. Growing Veterans also wants to partner with funding campaigns to increase community outreach and awareness while helping the community understand how they can support the veteran population and help prevent suicide. Consider assisting Growing Veterans by donating or pledging here. Additionally, learn more about their 3rd Annual November Pledge Drive here.

Note: Christopher Brown also authored a recent column for NWCitizen entitled How Our Community Can Welcome Our Troops Home.

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • 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

David MacLeod

Nov 03, 2015

Thank you Dick for sharing this important story.
There’s also a nice 30 minute video interview with Chris Brown, Chris Wolf, and a number of the other heroes involved with Growing Veterans. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhE53Elsxug

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 04, 2015

David,

Thanks for your comment and the link to an additional video regarding Growing Veterans.  These individuals deserve our support given the abysmal failure of our government to provide for their health, housing and job needs.

That being said, I would like to comment on your use of the word “hero”.  I hear it a lot nowadays and it always makes me uncomfortable, not because there are no veterans who are combat heroes, but that the term is used so broadly that it loses meaning.  If you were to go into any VFW hall or other gathering of veterans and ask all the heroes to stand up, you would most likely get blank stares.  Going to a war zone or being shot at is not heroic in and of itself as most soldiers see that as merely doing their duty.  We do them more honor if we engage them in conversation about their service than if we place them on a pedestal.  Pedestals create distance.

I will agree that the struggles of some of these veterans after returning home are heroic in nature but I really wonder if the public understands that version of heroism.

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