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, pictured, helped start the Veterans' Sanctuary just outside of Ithaca, New York.
    Photo by Poppy Kohner
  • “Field Exercises,” by Stephanie Westlund, shares stories of former soldiers who have turned to farming and other outdoor activities to ease the effects of their war trauma.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

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.

11/11/2014 8:58:40 AM

I was discharged just before the second Iraqi war, so I did not see action. Even so, when I came home I was a ticking time bomb- suicidal/homicidal. Even those Civilian classes back in the States did not help at all; that "switch" was always on. I was so bad my family was afraid of me. Over time I found solace in deep Personal Bible Studies, spending time building and maintaining gardens (and seeing them come to life with little help from me) and in working with troubled and aggressive dogs. When people find out I'm a Veteran, once they get over the shock (I'm a 30 something, 5'3 1/2" female who has trouble lifting 50lbs. anymore), they always make a comment of one kind or another- I'm sure they mean well but that was not the best period in my life. I always reply that "I traded my M16 in for the Bible because it's a lot more accurate, a lot more powerful, a lot more reliable and I know I'm on the winning team!" Since the time of my discharge, my health has declined considerably and I now live in a 100sf Enclosed Cargo Trailer (with electric but no running water); I’ve added a refrigerator and a Nature’s Head composting toilet (I had a washer/dryer combo hooked up to a garden hose but had to sell it). My Mom, 2 Home-trained & Registered Service dogs and 2 cats are on this journey with me; there is no low-income housing or disability housing that can accommodate our needs and there is really no medical help or jobs available to accommodate for what we suffer (Environmentally Ill; MCS, EHS, etc.). What most friends and family find strange is that we do not mind living this way; it is certainly not a place to go after a 9-5 job; this is our life- it’s very hard work just surviving though each day but it is also very productive and though we’re both disabled we do have to work… to be clean… to eat… to show hospitality to friends who visit… to help take care of each other … to have healthy and happy animals (two of which help n return), etc. Living in a small space means being outside more and being surrounded by nature (being Environmentally Ill one does not do well in cities or other highly polluted areas). There are days I physically and/or mentally cannot get out of bed but having daily responsibilities makes me get up anyway; I rest more on those days but I cannot pull the covers over my head or throw in the towel. There are still periods where I battle depression and anger but not as severe and keeping busy at those times is also a good and healthy way to release that negative energy (On a side note: there’s Naturpoaths at AltMed in Blackhawk, SD who use EDS Testing to see what’s going on inside and they’ve also helped considerably.) In our travels I've been helping train others with rehabilitating their red-zone dogs (very aggressive), Mom and I have slowly been learning how to fix up the trailer, we've begun learning Spanish to be a part of a tiny Spanish Group of Jehovah's Witnesses in a remote area of Arizona (Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 43:10,11), and we've just begun a new project called “bucket gardening” (it makes sense for us to have a portable organic garden). Though I was not in war and did not suffer the same level of trauma you guys did, reading your article brought the issues close to home for me as well. I've also heard stories of people I'd served with, who were sent into the second Iraqi War, and they’re similar to your story- even the problems since they've come home is the same. Some are physically ill (SKY TEST produced specifically for these soldiers) as well as suffering severe Post Traumatic Stress. It’s wonderful that you are helping them find their way back to being human again and I’m sure they appreciate that you’re not a doctor sitting behind a desk telling them what they need to do to get better; you’ve been in their shoes, in their trenches/fox holes, and don’t mind sharing what helps you to cope- it’s a field tested method (pun intended here) and has been proved successful which is far more appealing than taking pills and going to classes. Being productive, spending personal time with God by reading though the pages of his personal Diary and praying (like a 2 way radio) and spending time with animals or helping heal our little corner of the earth, and sharing good things with others gives us direction and a sense of purpose and is spiritually healing. Thank you for sharing this article. Below (after the scriptures) is an article I ran across that I thought might be encouraging to all my comrades who are seeking peace in their hearts after facing such tremendous ordeals. Isaiah 2:4 “He [God] will render judgment among the nations And set matters straight respecting many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, Nor will they learn war anymore.”- this inscription is on a famous statue in the garden of the United Nations but, of course, without mentioning the scripture. Isaiah 11:6-9: “The wolf will reside for a while with the lamb, And with the young goat the leopard will lie down, And the calf and the lion and the fattened animal will all be together; And a little boy will lead them. The cow and the bear will feed together, And their young will lie down together. The lion will eat straw like the bull. The nursing child will play over the lair of a cobra, And a weaned child will put his hand over the den of a poisonous snake. They will not cause any harm Or any ruin in all my holy mountain, Because the earth will certainly be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah As the waters cover the sea.” Micah 4:3,4: “He will render judgment among many peoples And set matters straight respecting mighty nations far away. They will beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning shears. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, Nor will they learn war anymore. They will sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, And no one will make them afraid, For the mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken.” Hosea 2:18-20: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the wild animals of the field, And with the birds of the heavens and the creeping things of the ground; I will rid the land of the bow and the sword and war, And I will make them lie down in security. I will engage myself to you forever; And I will engage myself to you in righteousness and in justice, In loyal love and in mercy. I will engage myself to you in faithfulness, And you will certainly know Jehovah.” Awake! of October 22, 2005 (pages 11-15) A Conflict That Changed My Life AS TOLD BY MICHAEL MOLINA ‘The Republic of Viet Nam awarded Petty Officer Molina with the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry,’ reported the military newspaper “Tester,” of Maryland, U.S.A. ‘Later Molina earned a gold star in lieu of a second award of the Commendation Medal for his courageous and tenacious actions during another heavy gunfire engagement. On June 6, 1968, Molina earned a second gold star when he prevented the loss of an important outpost to Viet Cong guerillas.’ ALTOGETHER, I flew 284 combat missions and was decorated with 29 medals. Now I serve as a Christian minister in a different kind of warfare, about which the Bible says: “The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly.” (2 Corinthians 10:4) Let me explain how it was that I made such a change in my life. Chicago is situated in northern Illinois, U.S.A., which always seems to have strong wind off Lake Michigan. On February 1, 1947, the day I was born there, it was not only windy but also freezing cold. Since my father had recently served in World War II, two military doctors helped my mother bring me into the world. When I was ten years old, my parents moved our family to Los Angeles, California, where they sent my older brother, my sister, and me to a Catholic school. I grew up playing baseball and football in the streets and in vacant lots, but I also played soldier with homemade wooden rifles and machine guns. The 1960’s, when I entered high school, were years of radical thinking and changing attitudes. Assassinations of social and political leaders, including the 1963 shooting of the president of the United States, as well as protest marches, burning of the American flag, and violent demonstrations, were the scenes of the day. While in school, most of my classmates and I worried about the military draft. Shortly after graduation from high school in 1966, I received a call to report for my physical examination, which I passed. However, instead of being drafted into the army, I joined the navy. Since I was fascinated with helicopters, I volunteered for a new squadron of navy attack helicopters. In November 1967, soon after receiving basic training, I found myself in Vietnam’s capital city, Saigon. Initial War Experiences Shortly, I was shipped to a small airstrip, where there were four Huey helicopters. Some of our detachment of 30 sailors slept at the airstrip, while others of us were accommodated ten miles away in a two-story building. On my first night, I awoke abruptly as bullets began piercing the building. I rolled out of my cot and lay flat on the floor for a few seconds. When I heard shooting above, I found my way to the stairs and made it to the roof, where someone gave me a rifle. We fought for the rest of the night, barefoot and in our underclothes. After three days of heavy fighting—surrounded and completely cut off—we ran out of food and water and most of our ammunition. The officer in charge gave the order, “At the first light of day, we will make a run for the airstrip.” We had to cross a small town that was in flames. We could hear gunfire, including that of machine guns, as we made our way through the town. There were dead bodies everywhere. We finally made it to our airstrip, where the situation was not much better. We dug foxholes around the airstrip and tried to hold our ground. On several occasions the Vietcong broke our perimeter and invaded our airstrip, killing many, including our commanding officer. I stayed in my foxhole for several weeks without a change of clothes or a shower. Then a helicopter evacuated us to another outpost. After those initial days of combat, I was determined to become a helicopter door gunner. I was given a few days’ training and became part of an aircrew. Combat firefights were routine; sometimes I flew three or four missions a day. The Effect of the War I was shocked to see so much killing. At the same time, I thought about the protests against the war back home. Were we not fighting for freedom? Were we not risking our lives so that others could live better lives? Still, I wondered where the justice was in the war. Who would benefit from it? The Vietnamese? They had endured many years of war even before we came. Now there was only more death and suffering. I was young and didn’t understand the politics behind the war. I didn’t have time to think about it either. I just knew that I had missions to fly and a job to do because that was what I was trained for. Sailors would say, “We were trained to fight, not to think.” I did promise myself, though, that if I survived, I would do some serious investigating to find out why we were there. The Vietnam conflict exposed me to something else that I was not prepared to handle—drugs. As an adolescent, I smoked cigarettes, drank beer and whiskey on weekends, and went to parties. But I had never used drugs. In Vietnam things changed. Some of my companions said: “Why not, Mike? You’re going to get your head shot off tomorrow anyway.” So, on occasion, I complied. Combat, though, is no place for the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and I swore to myself that I would not take them before going on a mission. When I returned home, however, I carried the urge to take drugs, and I got involved in that world. Back From the War When I returned home to California from Vietnam in October 1970, my outlook on life had changed drastically. Although I had joined the military to help the cause of freedom, I felt I had been used. I came back bitter and full of hate. I was a misfit and was no longer patriotic. I spent days smoking marijuana and taking other drugs while working on my motorcycle in my parents’ garage. Brooding over my situation and thinking about what had happened in Vietnam only depressed me further. My conscience started to bother me. My desire to investigate the reason for the Vietnam War grew. The government gave veterans education benefits, so I enrolled in a city college and later entered the California State University at Los Angeles. There I acquired friends who had demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, as well as others who had been in the war. We had long discussions about the war and world conditions. Not one of us had satisfying answers; we were all quite confused. Efforts to Help and Find Help Many of us, in fact, had emotional and psychological problems. I was moved to try to do something to help. So in school I majored in abnormal psychology. Since I had been so involved in war and killing, I decided to work to make amends. Thus, I started working in hospitals for the mentally disturbed. Drugs were all over our university campus, and I came to see that they were the root of many problems. I wanted to make progress with my studies and help those in the hospital who were having psychological problems. So I quit all use of drugs and dedicated my time and energies to study and work. Yet, as a therapist, I could see only limited progress with my mental patients. Completely frustrated with the system of things and with my own tormented conscience, I sought relief from my anguish. I started to pray and go to church. Mass in the Catholic Church was of little instructive value to me. So I started attending church at night. I would go in, light a candle, and pray in front of the images. These included Jesus hanging on a cross as well as Mary with a dagger in her heart and other images of so-called saints. I began to think: ‘What a cold and morbid place the church is! Could God’s spirit really be here?’ I needed answers and encouragement. I had seen enough suffering. So one night I left the church and went to pray in the park. I looked up at the stars and probably for the first time in my life tried earnestly to communicate with my Creator. Learning Bible Truth I escaped from the stress of working at the hospital and visited my old friend Gary for a weekend. One day we spent some time in his living room watching TV. The news was about efforts to impeach President Nixon. We talked about the corruption in all aspects of life, and I mentioned that I had felt deceived regarding the war in Vietnam. Alva, my friend’s wife, overheard us and came out from the kitchen. She said that events such as those we were discussing were in fulfillment of Bible prophecy. “What could the problems of a president have to do with Bible prophecy?” I asked. Alva explained that soon God’s Kingdom in the hands of Christ Jesus will replace all corrupt governments and that people will live forever in peace on an earth that will be transformed into a paradise. (Daniel 2:44; Revelation 21:3, 4) Alva spoke about the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s Kingdom come and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.—Matthew 6:9, 10. I could see that we truly do need divine guidance to realize better government and true peace on earth. (Ecclesiastes 8:9; Jeremiah 10:23) Regarding the possibility of living forever, I remembered learning that the atoms that make up our physical body are replaced in relatively short periods of time. Even though some things Alva said seemed far-fetched, my curiosity was aroused. I wanted to make amends for the many injuries I had caused and to help ease the suffering of others. Alva suggested that I go to the Kingdom Hall, where I could learn more. Bill Akina was a full-time minister in the congregation. He had been in the navy during the second world war, so I could relate to him. Above all, he knew the Bible, and he and his wife answered my many questions by using it. As my studies with Bill progressed, I could see that although my efforts to help those in the hospital were well-intentioned, I could give them only temporary relief. On the other hand, helping people acquire an accurate knowledge of the Bible would mean everlasting life to them if they had faith and lived in harmony with this knowledge.—John 17:3. Bill studied the Bible with me using the study aid The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to God in July 1974. Six months later I became a pioneer, as full-time evangelizers among Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. In the meantime, I quit my studies at the university and discontinued my work in the hospital. To support myself in the ministry, I worked as a janitor cleaning banks at night. (1 Thessalonians 4:11) My friends and family thought I had gone crazy. After pioneering in California for about a year, I began to wonder how I could be used more fully in Jehovah’s service. I decided to set missionary work in a foreign territory as my goal. After serving as a pioneer for a few years, I received an invitation to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, which was then located in Brooklyn, New York. I was part of the 66th class of that school and graduated on March 11, 1979, in Long Island City, New York. Changes of Assignment I was assigned to Guatemala, Central America, where I served as a missionary for about a year. Then I was invited to work in the small printery at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the capital, Guatemala City. In 1981, I married Lupita, a local pioneer, and she was invited to join me at the branch office. Later, in 1996, our printing in Guatemala was discontinued when we began receiving all of our publications from the Mexico branch. Our little girl, Stephanie, was born in 1984, yet I was able to continue serving at the branch office. This was true even after Lupita gave birth to Mitchell in 1987. Living in a residence apart from the branch office and commuting about six miles [10 km] to the office each day has not been easy. But it has been a privilege to serve in this capacity, and my family has been very supportive. Lupita and Stephanie are now pioneers, and Mitchell is a baptized minister. He will finish his studies at a trade school this year, and his goal is to pursue the full-time ministry. I know that we enjoy these special privileges, not because of personal abilities, but because of Jehovah’s undeserved kindness. He is a loving God, and he will use anyone who has a willing spirit and looks to him for guidance. Sometimes we are asked how we as a family manage to share so fully in the ministry and at the same time support ourselves. We do work secularly during our vacations. But beyond that, we have always tried to have a ‘simple eye’ as regards material things, looking to Jehovah for help, trusting in him, and constantly seeking his guidance.—Matthew 6:25-34; Proverbs 3:5. Carrying a gun gave me a sense of power, so I can see the need constantly to work on developing humility. Satan’s system of things taught me to hate and kill and to be suspicious, aggressive, and defensive. But Jehovah has extended mercy and loving-kindness to me, for which I am very appreciative. Now I am determined to continue to learn war no more and to have love and compassion for all.—Matthew 5:43-45; Isaiah 2:4. It has not been easy for me to make changes. However, I have learned to live a more peaceable life. With God’s help I have also been able to cope with the nightmares resulting from my war experiences. I truly look forward to the time when wars and conflicts will cease. (Psalm 46:9) Until that time comes, I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in the lifesaving work of helping people to learn about our grand Lifegiver, Jehovah God.

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