I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Memorial Day than by paying tribute to our veterans. Apparently, neither can John Mahshie.
Mahshie has created a farm for veterans in Western North Carolina and soon anyone flying above his family’s plot of land will know about it.
As the sun poured down one Saturday earlier this month, I watched as Mahshie and other volunteers planted rows of red, white and blue at the Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville.
The nonprofit allows veterans a community to be with their peers and the opportunity to grow food and improve their nutrition as they heal.
Using plastic sheeting for the color, the 380-foot American flag garden will be one of the largest of its kind, Mahshie said, while wiping sweat from his brow.
The colors interact differently with the sunlight and the soil, allowing for a diverse array of produce including everything from the nutritionally dense moringa plant to the all-American favorite, watermelon.
Food from the patriotic display will be distributed free of charge to veterans at the Charles George VA Medical Center and to area food pantries. In 2015, the farm donated more than 3,700 pounds of fresh produce. Mahshie hopes his new garden will triple the amount he can give away.
“I’m ashamed of what this country has done to vets and I think every bit will help,” said John Tullar, 79, a Veterans Healing Farm volunteer who lives in Brevard.
During a water break, the senior recalled when soldiers came home from World War II. Then, there were jobs and ways for veterans to get involved, he said. Today, many veterans face high rates of unemployment and struggle with mental illness.
“They did a great job when they were serving and now they don’t have a way to prove themselves,” he said.
Veteran Cari Mueller came to Western North Carolina after 26 years with the Army. She had never been to the area, but thought the mountains would offer serenity in her retirement. She said the Veterans Healing Farm has allowed her to to work with her hands, share stories and meet others.
“There’s an opportunity to continue to serve with this garden right here,” said Mueller, who spent four months in Somalia working as medical support. She still remembers the starving children who would come to the compound begging for help.
Mahshie started the Veterans Healing Farm three years ago.
Following in the steps of his father, the young man had joined the Air Force when he was 18. It was the year 2000 and life got scary for the recruit after 9/11. Not only was there a real threat of going to war, but his father, Tony Mahshie, died that year in a motorcycle accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Stationed in California, the WNC native found himself grieving 3,000 miles away from home. The isolation got to him and Mahshie’s depression became unbearable. He said he tried to sleep the pain away.
Service work in Mexico finally woke Mahshie up. He realized that while he was helping others, he was feeling better about himself.
Today, the self-taught farmer and former art major said the land is his new medium. He wants his farm to connect veterans with each other to help them live a healthy lifestyle. “I was proud to serve and I can keep serving here,” he said.
Mahshie hugs each of his volunteers as he bids them goodbye. He has been working since 7:30 a.m. He stands barefoot in his field looking at their progress. He talks eagerly about his ideas for expansion.
“This is Mahshie land,” he said. “I’m John Mahshie and this is what my father left behind. This is a way to honor him.”
This is the opinion of Beth Walton. Each week a Citizen-Times reporter volunteers around Asheville and shares their adventure with our readers. If you’d like us to visit your group, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-232-5851. More at www.citizen-times.com/causes.
The Veterans Healing Farm is always in need of volunteers and support. For information, contact the farm at (828) 606-8212 or VeteransHealingFarm@Gmail.com.