Near the wheelchair-accessible strawberry hills at Veterans Healing Farm, two shipping containers rest on a grassy patch as if dropped there by a strong storm.
The farm is on veteran John Mahshie’s family land, a 9-acre piece of Hendersonville real estate repurposed as a place where other veterans can find empowerment to recover from their own personal storms.
Mahshie’s vision is a holistic healing space, more than the sum of its 200 asparagus crowns and 60 hops plants growing toward the sun, more than a vegetable garden dotted with kale and still-young tomato plants.
“Our tagline says we’re cultivating life through community, and we’re doing that through teaching alternative energy and (growing) hops,” he said. “It’s different things but, in essence, it’s back down to the core of the idea of community.”
In the paw paw and apple trees, the blueberries and blackberries, Mahshie sees a place for safe vulnerability. He sees veterans laboring to avoid becoming statistics. Among the two produce gardens, one lined with red, white and blue plastic-covered 300-foot rows, forming an American flag, he sees more than patriotism.
The red plastic will increase tomato production up to 20 percent. The blue reflects UV light to benefit the cucumber and melon family. The silver-white deters pests. All produce from that “Donation Garden,” accessed by stepping stones tracing a path through a cool, clear creek is donated to organizations that serve veterans.
In that way, the farm even reaches veterans who have no desire, or mental or physical means to participate.
The techniques Mahshie uses to grow his plants are meant to optimize the natural benefits of sunlight, soil and rain. He rejects the idea that innovations in farming are necessarily more convenient and productive.
“The idea of getting the soil back to the way that nature intended it to be, in my opinion, is one of the most advanced forms possible,” he said. “When you take something that’s sustainable and scrap it for something that’s not, eventually what was once sustainable will start to come back.”
A graduate of Hendersonville High School, Mahshie joined the Air Force right out of school, where he was a ground equipment mechanic and in the honor guard, a division responsible for funeral detail.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, Mahshie credited the military with granting him drive, focus and a sense of purpose, intrinsically tied with a strong sense of community.
military, there’s rules for rules,” he said. “You leave your family, your friends and even your identity, you join the military and they take away your clothes, cut your hair and give you an identity, and everyone in that room has the same experience. You go from zero to best friends in three seconds.”
Mahshie paints a view of a world colored by a modern-day epidemic: isolation in an age of sitting alone by the light of technology rather than gathering by the flickering fire of hearth. It’s where many veterans suffer a particularly crippling degree of culture shock.
“These are anti-social networks,” Mahshie said. “You don’t have community. You don’t have authenticity. You don’t have vulnerability, which is part of community.”
It’s that community that Adriana Fogarty missed after leaving the Air Force after seven and a half years, a month before her first daughter was born.
She and her husband, Ryan Fogarty, moved to Hendersonville after he was involuntarily discharged from the Air Force after 11 years due to downsizing. It was the first time in their adult lives the Fogartys had lived in a non-military town; fitting in and building long-term relationships was a struggle.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one struggling with that, and one thing that’s nice about the community of the Veterans Healing Farm is that you’re not alone,” she said. “There’s just so much hope even in that.”
The Fogarty family met the Mahshies at church, and joined the Veterans Healing Farm at its inception three years ago.
Through learning to grow and plant sustainably from Mahshie, who works “a million miles an hour,” Adriana Fogarty said she’s found the community she craves.
“Being in the military is a way of life that’s completely different from being a civilian,” she said. “You have camaraderie and you have experiences that most civilians just don’t.”
Just being able to share base camp stories in the same basic language can be so healing, she said. “It provides the connection of not feeling alone, which is such a big problem in our society — isolation.”
The culture shock of transitioning from the structure of the military leaves veterans susceptible to PTSD, depression or any of a number of issues that plague military personnel post-service.
“I feel like what we’re doing at the farm has so much potential to serve as a place to really play a role in that transition,” Mahshie said.
Statistics show veterans increasingly becoming casualties of their own private wars. Beginning in 2005, suicide within the military — particularly for the Army — steadily increased to record levels every year, and may have peaked in 2012.
According to the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, nearly half of 1.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are seeking disability compensation, with the average wait for claim processing surpassing eight months.
The National Institute of Mental Health says the suicide rate for veterans is 50 percent higher than that of civilians. Once of the most-circulated stats comes from the Department of Veteran Statistics, which says 22 veterans take their own lives daily.
“You always hear the 22-a-day stat for suicides, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mahshie said. “That doesn’t address divorce rates, substance abuse rates, homelessness, unemployment — there are many different issues.”
In the gardens, wood chips decompose, feeding an underground mycelium network. That network promotes plant growth from the roots up, strengthening the plant enough to deter pests without chemical intervention.
Mahshie’s approach to gardening is similar to his approach to human healing. He uses the word “empowerment” often, and hopes the human networks he’s nurturing will promote strength, one of the reasons he built the garden-side shipping containers.
The containers will eventually provide space for intensive boot-camp retreats. One has eight bunks with new mattresses, lights, ladders and windows; a tiny but full kitchen; a full bathroom. The temporary housing will allow veterans to immerse themselves in a sustainability based curriculum, including composting and permaculture classes.
The other trailer will form a mess hall where veterans can learn about fermentation, canning and food preparation.
Mahshie hopes the training can help give veterans a sense of camaraderie and purpose, the loss of which plagued Fogarty when she left the service.
“You have a mission, you have something you’re working toward, and you know it’s bigger than yourself,” she said. “We were doing our jobs because we knew it affected countless people that we would never meet.”
Fogarty was deployed in 2003, a controversial time colored by the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq.
“There was controversy in should we be there, should we not,” she said. “But even being there and even seeing the negative press, I thought, you know what? That’s why I’m serving. So our country can remain a free place where people can have their opinions and say them without severe, life-threatening repercussions.”
One of Fogarty’s favorite military memories is crossing the border from Kuwait to Iraq, where women and children waved Iraqi and American flags. The 5-foot-7, 120-pound woman was a vehicle operator, driving forklifts, wreckers and tractor-trailers. The little girls would look at Fogarty’s frame, swallowed by gear, but undeniably feminine.
“Their eyes would just light up at the possibilities,” she said. “Not to be a truck driver — just to have choices. What an amazing position as a female to be able to bring hope, even cross-culturally.”
Now Fogarty sees her own possibilities again.
“I can’t wait until we can get some of these things going and invite some of these veterans to these retreats and use those shipping containers to reach even more vets,” she said. “I’m just so excited about the possibilities that are coming.”
Mahshie sees the Veteran’s Healing Farm as a new sort of social network, a place for seeding purpose. “The sense that my story isn’t over,” he said.
It’s a place for giving veterans a hand up, not a handout.
“I can’t keep anyone from committing suicide,” he said. “I can’t do anything in terms of fixing anybody’s life. But I can provide an environment that they can be exposed to different things that will allow them to fix their lives.”
Military suicides by the numbers
- Beginning in 2005, suicide within the military — particularly in the Army — steadily began increasing to record levels every year, and may have peaked in 2012.
- Among full-time soldiers, the suicide rate soared to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, well above a 25.1-per-100,000 rate for civilians of a similar age group during 2010, the latest year available, according to a Pentagon report. Among male soldiers, the rate was 31.8 per 100,000. There were a record 164 soldier suicides that year.
- The overall national civilian suicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000 in 2010 and 19.9 per 100,000 for men in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- The Army National Guard rate for 2012 reached 30.8 deaths per 100,000 with 110 suicides. The suicide rate for men in the Army National Guard was 34.2 per 100,000. Pentagon data shows.
- For full-time troops across the U.S. military, the suicide rate peaked at 22.7 per 100,000 in 2012 and fell to 19.1 per 100,000 last year, according to the Pentagon.
Source: USA Today via Defense Suicide Prevention Office