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Agriculture could be a remedy for returning vets with trauma

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a problem for returning military veterans. Twenty die by suicide each day.

But there is some good news: Farming may just be the cure for many of these affected men and women.

“Many veterans who once worked the farm or other veterans who want to work on the farm for the first time will do so, but many of those will carry with them issues that make it hard for them to adjust,” explained Stephen Swain, assistive technology specialist with the AgrAbility program at Purdue University. “The farm is therapeutic for them.”

He addressed the issue during a large gathering at last week’s Farm Science Review in Ohio. In attendance were a few veterans – as well as a few producers looking to hire veterans.

“Those in the military will tell you that roughly 40 percent of veterans have some form of mental disability after serving, but we think it’s higher,” Swain said. “I’ve found out that that number is more like 60 percent.”

Veterans active and retired look for ways to reintegrate into their communities. Some return with many challenges, both mental and physical.

“These veterans are not driven by income,” he said. “Most of them have retirement incomes or disability checks. Most are driven by helping other veterans and giving back. It’s a totally different culture.”

For starters, Swain said farmers should consider five things: learn the culture, identify the veterans, present information in multiple formats, learn their goals and be ready to invest time.

A Beginning Farmer Grant was awarded to Purdue extension three years ago by the USDA. There are two parts to the grant: Purdue Beginning Farmer and Indiana AgrAbility. Military veterans are a main focus under this grant.

“The Purdue Beginning Farmer program has done well to serve these veterans by offering 10 regional farm tours per year, five full-day workshops each year and two major farm tours per year,” Swain noted.

“The Indiana AgrAbility program offers two veteran farm tours per year, one full-day workshop per year and 10 farm visits to veteran farms.”

According to him, the workshops provide detailed information for the veterans and cover such topics as aquaculture, hydroponics, Farm Credit, the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, cattle management and health and how to market farm products. Farm tours have helped enlighten veterans to such options as pasture-raised chickens, sheep, goats, microgreens, tilapia fish production, produce and orchard production.

Returning to the farm has been therapeutic for veterans, and not just in Indiana. Retired Army Command Sergeant Major Sam Rhodes, of Georgia, thought about taking his own life and struggled with a sense of hopelessness since returning from combat in Iraq in 2005 and being diagnosed with PTSD.

Getting back to the farm, he said, has helped him greatly.

“I spent 30 months in combat. It affected me more than most,” said Rhodes, 56. “I considered taking my own life. I’m still working through that. It’s a tough battle.”

He found that working with horses helped him cope with his feelings and gave him a new sense of inner peace and purpose – and he wanted to share that with others affected by PTSD.

He now runs a nonprofit called Warrior Outreach, which offers free programs that teach veterans the basics of horse riding and care. He operates out of his ranch in Fortson, Ga., about 30 miles from the Fort Benning Army base.