Healing From War Trauma Through Nature

How some veterans with war trauma are turning to farming and animals to recover and reintegrate themselves into civilian life.

Nathan Lewis in the Veterans' Sanctuary

Nathan Lewis, pictured, helped start the Veterans' Sanctuary just outside of Ithaca, New York.

Photo by Poppy Kohner

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Field Exercises, by Stephanie Westlund (New Society Publishers, 2014), explores approaches to conventional therapeutic and medical interventions, offering hope for veterans searching for ways to ease the transition to civilian life and recover from stress and war trauma. Westlund shares the stories of men and women who are finding relief from the effects of their military experiences through outdoor activities such as farming and gardening. The following excerpt from Chapter 3, Getting Back to Our Roots—Nathan Lewis and the Veterans' Sanctuary, tells of a young former soldier who helped start a farming community for veterans.

Nathan grew up in a family of five children in Barker, Niagara County, in western New York State. During his high-school years, army recruiters came to his school regularly, where, he told me, they continue to do very well. “Not many jobs, careers, cultural opportunities for people in areas like that,” he said. And so, in 2001 right out of high school—and like many of his peers—Nathan enlisted in the US Army field artillery for two years. As he described it now, “I was coaxed into joining the military; it wasn’t something I really sought out. It wasn’t my own idea.” He left for basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in August 2001. Then September 11 happened. Nathan recalled training hard in the year leading up to the Iraq War, and he was deployed in March 2003. After a brief time in Kuwait, his unit went to Baghdad, where they spent the next five months collecting weapons and ammunitions stockpiles in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. “We were trying to police up all the weapons stockpiles so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the insurgents,” said Nathan. “So we spent a lot of time on the roads, a lot of time going into bunkers, buildings and Iraqi army bases, into warehouses and in the streets, just handling weapons and explosives and putting them on the trucks and kicking them off somewhere safer.”

Nathan had strong reservations about the war from the start, and once in Iraq, he wanted to get out as soon as possible. In August 2003, his two-year enlistment period was up. “All I had to do to get out was not reenlist.” However, he remembers the period immediately following his return home as an “unsteady, dark, troubling time.” He was very unhappy and suffered from extreme anger. The next few years were filled with heavy drinking, substance abuse and bar fights. Nathan also experienced deep guilt about his participation in the war. “As the war unfolded and as the violence increased, as different scandals came to light, whether they be massacres of unarmed civilians, or torture in the prisons, or the Battle of Fallujah, I started to really, really get a gut-wrenching guilt, and I was just sick of the whole thing.”

After leaving the Army, Nathan began attending the local community college, but he felt alienated from his civilian peers who did not share his experiences. “They didn’t seem to know anything about it or care. They didn’t seem to know the war was still going on, and would often ask inappropriate questions if anything at all.” He also held several jobs, including one at the local lumber yard, but felt alienated from his co-workers there, too, who upon learning he was a veteran, often expressed what Nathan called “racist and genocidal” opinions about killing everyone in the Middle East or turning the entire region into a parking lot.

Through his struggles, Nathan eventually found his way to the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), in which he was active between 2006 and 2008. In contrast to the alienation he felt around his college peers and lumber yard co-workers, Nathan felt at home amongst IVAW veterans who shared his experiences and whom he described as “progressively minded, interesting people, looking to do different things and not afraid to rock the boat.”

Starting the Veterans’ Sanctuary

Nathan and a small group of others often discussed their desire to settle down together on a farm and to create a peer-to-peer program to support veterans reintegrating into civilian life. While they imagined different possibilities and programs, growing their own food was always central to the conversation. And Nathan was no stranger to gardening. When he was growing up, his family had a large garden in which they grew mostly annuals and some fruit trees, and he, along with his twin brother and three sisters, spent plenty of time weeding and hoeing in the garden. The family also had a small but popular roadside stand where they sold Lewis Sweet Corn.

By the time he had completed community college, Nathan continued to harbor a deep distrust in the economy and many of the traditional, popular cultural assumptions and beliefs held in US society. “I felt very unstable and insecure in terms of the basics in life—food, shelter and money. I was looking to do something different, so subsistence farming really spoke to me.” And based on past experiences, he was not eager to find another job. “I just felt like dropping out of society and the economy,” he explained. “And so I was really primed to start working at the Sanctuary.”

Along with a few friends, Nathan put together what would eventually become the Veterans’ Sanctuary, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. They chose Ithaca, New York, as their base because of their connections in the community within the anti-war movement, and also its reputation as a progressive, radical community supportive of veterans’ issues. Initially, the friends hoped to buy some land, but they lacked the finances. Eager to get started, they kept themselves open to alternative possibilities, and fortune was on their side. “We figured out that capital wasn’t necessarily a critical element in putting something like this together,” Nathan recalled. “We just got lucky and met the right person who knew of some land that had two enormous greenhouses on it.”

The two- to three-acre parcel in Trumansburg, just outside of Ithaca, had not been used for some time. Trees grew up through the greenhouse floors, weeds and trash were everywhere, and soil fertility was generally poor. But it was enough to get started. Nathan, his friends and the landowner made an agreement on a handshake, and the Veterans’ Sanctuary garden was born. The veterans were to act as caretakers of the land and to leave it in better condition than when they started. Nathan described the seven-year lease agreement with the landowners as “a very healthy collaboration, cooperative effort. They’re not trying to squeeze rent out of us. They donate the land. Once in a while, we take them a basket of vegetables or fruit or whatever’s around, but pretty much we just have access to it.”

That first year, the veterans cleaned up the land. They built raised beds and planted a variety of food crops, with a particular focus on long-term fruit and berries and cold-hearty perennials, which tend to be more disease- and drought-resistant than annuals. These included reliable crops such as horseradish, nettles and Jerusalem artichokes. Reflecting on growing Jerusalem artichokes, Nathan laughed: “I don’t even necessarily like them all that much. I’ve found a few ways to cook them and ferment them, but they always give you gas and they don’t taste the best. But there’s just something really awesome about going out with a shovel, cracking open the soil in whatever month that you want to, throwing them in there and then they come up. And then you try to dig them up, and they’re doubled the next year. It’s like the Terminator, they just keep coming back; you just can’t mess with them!”

The veterans’ main goal for their garden is sustainable food security. “We like to think about and follow a lot of permaculture principles to try to integrate things, instead of just big monocrops. We don’t have any power tools except a chainsaw,” Nathan explained. “I like not having a tractor. I like not smelling fumes. Talk about triggers and shit—diesel exhaust makes me think of the fuckin’ Army, that’s universal! That’s kind of the hallmark of the military, that you smell diesel exhaust. So we really value the marginal things. The whole space is kind of a marginal space; if you were starting a for-profit farm, you wouldn’t look at the place where we farm now. We want to be independent and fairly resilient. So we try to get stuff, and saving seeds is just one of the many things we’re trying to learn and get good at.”

In an ideal world, Nathan said, the Veterans’ Sanctuary would include animals in their operation. “If I had a whole homestead somewhere, without a doubt I’d get some goats or some sheep or chickens and ducks,” he told me. And several years ago, the group did experiment with incorporating laying hens into the garden. The chickens lived in the greenhouse for a time, and then in chicken tractors (which are chicken coops without a floor that can be moved around to different areas). However, because none of the veterans live at the garden space, they are limited in their ability to care for animals, and after about a year, they realized that keeping chickens was not practical. “We were going through a pretty chaotic time where we weren’t able to take care of them that well, so we ate them.”

To learn the different skills associated with farming and permaculture, the veterans take an experiential approach—talking to other farmers, reading books—and trial and error. Sometimes they succeed, and other times they fail. Nathan pointed to the group’s latest experiments implementing a humanure system.

“What’s that?” I asked. “I’m not familiar with that term.”

“Humanure . . .” Nathan hesitated briefly, and the awareness of what he was talking about suddenly dawned on me. “You’re basically composting your human waste. It’s intentional in the sense that you’re going to be using that as fertilizer. I just think it’s awesome; not everyone does.” Nathan went on to describe the reactions of friends to the veterans’ latest experiment. “Usually it’s at dinner when we start bragging: ‘Yeah we’re shittin’ in buckets, and we’re gonna have some awesome fertilizer.’ And their chewing slows down, and they kind of look at you. But then I look at them and say, ‘Oh no, you have to wait a year, just to be safe, so we haven’t fertilized anything yet.’ So they’re like, ‘Oh, good, this food isn’t fertilized with shit.’ ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘Oh, OK, good, good, good.’ So there are still a lot of taboos with that sort of thing.”

By the end of the year, they had collected two large compost bins of humanure. “We made really nice containers for it; it was really neat and orderly. And they did get hot, they were certainly cooking down,” Nathan explained. But when the veterans moved out of their shared house in January 2013, they couldn’t take the compost because it was winter, and they worried that the new renters would want to keep it. “So we went back to the old house with a plan that we were going to say, ‘Hey, we left our compost here. Do you mind if we haul it out? And if they said, ‘Yeah,’ then good, we wouldn’t mention that it was humanure,” said Nathan. “But if they said, ‘No, we want to use it,’ we were going to pull that out of our back pockets and say, ‘Well actually it’s not compost, but we were crapping in buckets for a year,’” he laughed heartily. “Luckily it didn’t come down to that. All we had to do was pick it up.”

They moved the humanure compost out to the farm, and mixed it with grass cuttings. Nathan explained that they are continuing to collect and compost it, but haven’t used the initial batch yet because it was not completely composted. “It’s still cooking down, and we have full intention to incorporate that right into the farm—especially by next spring, it will be broken down enough where you won’t be able to tell what it was. Not that you could tell when we were shovelling it; it looked like any other half-finished compost,” Nathan said. “So it’s moving in a good direction. We’ll get to it someday.”

Given that their main goal is sustainable food security, the veterans are particularly focused on growing food for the members of the Veterans’ Sanctuary and then sharing what’s left over with their friends, allies in the community and other veterans. “We share with the local food bank when we can. We give it to veterans and their families in town when we can. Just today we gave some to an outreach coordinator from the Binghamton Vet Center. They have a nutrition and cooking class with veterans down at the Vet Center in Binghamton, and so it felt really good to give them a bunch of kale and daikon radishes and onions because they’re going to learn to cook and prepare it, and say, ‘Hey, these vets have this farm up there and they grew this!’” However, the importance of growing their own food runs deeper than food security, Nathan told me. “It’s not only food security but to have real food that is healing and nourishes bodies, so veterans can get their nutrients and have a fighting chance to tackle some of the more long-term, deeper spiritual/soul/war trauma issues, to try to sort them out. I see it as very important: first things first—your body has to be nourished. You have to exercise.”

Since starting the garden, the members of Veterans’ Sanctuary have come a long way. They are now eating a lot of the food they grow. “I’m starting to benefit a lot in terms of health and payoffs, which provides the motivation to keep me doing it.” They started with small, limited goals and have been expanding very slowly. “We try to move forward with a very low footprint, so we’re not trying to build large outbuildings or anything like that. We try to generally just improve the land, so that means mowing, and if a tree comes down, we’re the ones that clean it up. Once in a while, we ask the landowners’ permission to do something, but mostly we have a whole lot of autonomy and trust. We just do what we feel is best, and it works out.”


Reprinted with permission from Field Exercises: How Veterans Are Healing Themselves Through Farming and Outdoor Activities, by Stephanie Westlund, and published by New Society Publishers, 2014.