As a veteran who has found a way to accomplish both a level of peace and closure from what many would think to be the most chaotic of experiences known by only three letters WAR, I write this to try to express how I have learned to cope and even readjust, as none of us who live it will ever be the same again, but perhaps we can learn to live, love and even smile again.
This is my story and I will start with saying this, unless you have experienced this folly it is very hard to explain what its like to spend over a year terrified for your life and while some jobs come close, none can fully relate to living life on the edge of a razor blade and going out every single day facing people not only intent on killing you but also very well armed to do it, not a chance, not a maybe but every single day knowing someone will try to kill or maim you or your friends.
This blog and purpose is about those who survive this tragedy against humanity called WAR who by the grace of God return home, alive and given another chance at life. I write this first blog to simply point out the way I found peace and also a future with the use of Agriculture and finding that connection with God and the land, this is my story.
In my first few weeks and months of coming home from Iraq I found myself like most experiencing the euphoria of being home, surviving and feeling overwhelmed by the experience. In those first days home I found myself on an emotional roller coaster from joy to depression, from anger to numbness. It was all relevant and all equally a pain in the rear, but few really knew that it was not just a war I was dealing with, in fact it was a combination of life failures, loss of friends, family and possessions that truly weighed heavy on this heart, I carried a very heavy emotional ruck sack that I simply could not put down.
While serving in Iraq I went through a very bad divorce, I lost my grandmother and grandfather who both passed away while I was deployed and the Army in their infinite wisdom could not bear to let me even fly home for a few days to say goodbye, mission essential was the term they used to keep me grounded. I had four children whom were also home in two different locations all having their own struggles with not only a dad at war, but also the realization that even if I do come home it wont be a home with them.
The combat injuries I endured and also seeing others including friends wounded and even killed, truly forced me to the bottom of a pit of despair and I really felt like it was time for me to check out!, however by the grace of God I get a wake up call on a bright day in May, 2005. after Waking from a night of replaying the battles at Baghdad and Fallujah in my dreams, the back and forth, tossing and turning, reliving the life and death struggles that seriously burned a mark on my soul, a mark that was so deep it invaded my mind both day and night. It was a constant companion, almost routine at this point and it seemed I would never escape it no matter how much I tried to drown it with Jack Daniels and chain-smoking cigarettes.
On this morning I broke the routine and walked out of my home and looked down the street at the very end and noticed an old abandoned flower bed, it was then that I thought about how as a child I would work in the huge gardens my grandfather had and being lost in those memories, I felt something on my face I had not truly felt in a while and that was a sincere smile, a smile that made my heart palpitate and truly feel the sun and the wind on my face. It was an emotional experience for me to stand looking at this one place at the end of the street that I could actually do something good with, a space that would allow me to produce life and not destruction and a place for me to possibly heal my heart while doing something good.
That smile was followed by a steady flow of tears and laughs and I’m sure that my neighbors thought me crazy, however none said so and one lady in her 60’s walked out and said “Boy I wish someone would do something with that old flower bed, the guy who used to live here would raise a small garden and flowers and it was really nice, I looked at her and simply said I’ll be right back.
With that almost comical comment reminiscent of an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, I drove down to the local Home Depot and picked up a range of tools, flowers and more seeds than one person could ever plant! I had a wide variety of things and a few bags of mulch and dirt to boot. I had basic experience growing up on a farm in WV so I wasn’t intimidated by the actual planting or caring for a garden, so away I went.
I worked that little 30 by 30 flower bed into a garden fairly quick, sweat, tears and emotions flowed out with each shovel of dirt I turned, I started to put my hands in the soil planting seeds, flowers and plants, planting a barrier of bright orange and yellow marigolds around the edge and in the middle laid out my tomato’s, cabbage, cucumbers and a few herbs. It was just so amazing and I was feeling very good at this point almost felt normal again, whatever that feels like anyway.
I was tired, dirty but feeling as I accomplished something more spiritual or amazing than I could ever possibly explain. I went inside and got cleaned up and feeling a very deep spiritual connection with God and reflecting on my Sunday school lessons as a child I felt this desire to go to church, not any church but the one we attended as a child some 22 years earlier, and when my oldest son Kyle ran in the house and said Dad can we go to church tonight! I felt that this was more than a gentle nudge from God this was a push and This was not an option anymore and we had to get up and go. So, with that following of my heart myself and the kids went to Hurricane Bible church that evening, something I had not done in a while.
I only had my uniform that was even half way decent for Church so dressed in my US Army Class B uniform I walked in with an instant felling of truly being home. I walked down the aisle not seeing anyone really, just following my kids to a row of seats and as I sat down I looked to my right and smiled at the gentleman and his wife and then I looked to my left and saw a young women looking right at me, she had long curly hair and a smile that really got my attention, it was as if she could see right into my heart. What I did not know at that moment in that little church after planting that little garden that I laid eyes on what would be in less than 7 months my wife Heather, my soul mate and friend whom to this day nearly 10 years later like gardening and farming makes this old soldier smile and remember that life truly is worth living after all.
Yes my fiends it was truly God, Gardens and a Girl named Heather that saved my life and all I want to do now is help others to find the peace that comes from planting the seeds of HOPE. That’s what life is truly all about, paying it forward and making a difference, so let us together go forward with this life, never giving up or giving in, just living each day as best we can and growing gardens that will produce much more than just food or flowers.
I call them gardens of hope and we truly can do so much more now than we could ever imagine thanks to groups like Grow Appalachia, Berea College and Veterans to Agriculture programs. Dream and dream big my friends, grow your gardens, work them and in the end what you get in the harvest could very well be much more than you ever hoped for.
Thank You for reading this Blog, it’s a part of my heart and the reason why I do what I do and hope to pass on the level of peace this has given me with others.
Captain-US Army (Retired)