The United States economy is still struggling and “jobs” are hard to find for the average person. Returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan discover they are competing for any meager employment opportunities with a growing legion of unemployed Americans. They are mostly offered jobs that are menial or low paying, the same types of jobs ex-convicts are offered when they leave jail. Thanks for putting your life on the line… now you can be a janitor!
If they have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and most of them have it in one form or other, they are given a variety of mind-altering drugs to numb their misery. One vet compared his bag of prescription pills to a bag of candies. Many vets attempt to get assistance from the myriad of Vet-help organizations only to find they are passed from program to program with no employment options. Most of these programs seem to be designed to keep the organization afloat, and don’t actually help the veterans into a real job. None of their military specialist skills are recognized outside the military and they find they are at the bottom of the skills heap … Slowly the vets lose hope and fall into a pit of despair.
One third of suicide attempts in the Oregon are a veteran. 18 veterans a day in the USA kill themselves… the numbers on veterans living on the streets, ending up in prison, addicted to drugs, in mental institutions and generally running off the rails is absolutely staggering not to mention the ripple effect to their families and communities. It seems more military veterans are killed by their own hand than the actual enemy in war. This tragedy is further compounded by the negative image promoted by the mainstream media…
Some months ago I was asked if I could help coach a bunch of American veterans into using permaculture practices to create sustainable livelihoods for themselves in their country. Could veterans heal themselves while healing the planet? Could veterans make a sustainable living growing food and planting food forests? Can former warriors become Green Warriors? Sure… why not?
Having trained ex-combatants, ex-child-soldiers and victims of war as well as having being a soldier myself I accepted the challenge and headed to Portland, Oregon from Hong Kong to facilitate an experiment. Permaculture can solve most of the problems of the world if applied in the right way.
The Vashon Island ferry drops its ramp and 30 odd cars rumble out of the ship and we pedestrians are waved on by a guy in a clown suit, oops, I mean a high visibility safety suit. I see some definite hippy types heading to the popular island famous for its organic farms, alternative culture and interesting people. I’m looking forward to meeting the veterans, and spending 3 days on a retreat with them as a prelude to our permaculture experiment.
The vets pick me up in a small blue Hyundai. They’re not the manic, Rambo, thousand yard stare types I almost expected but well-mannered excited young people on a mission. Penny Dex, a former army pharmacy specialist, fills me in on what’s going to happen over the next few days as we pass through farms and villages on the way to the retreat . The first night at the retreat we have a guest speaker, Kia, from the largest organic farm on the island. They intensively farm 7 acres and supply several farmers markets on the island and in Seattle. She gives the vets an overview of the realities of organic market gardening. Behind the success of this farm is an innovative 72-year-old farmer-elder who calls the shots. He couldn’t make it to our retreat . He’s recovering from injuries after falling off his skateboard. (Wow!) That’s what elders are for, mentoring.
Over the 3 days we visit a few farms and markets and see permaculture in action . The days are sunny and warm. Our veterans get more enthusiastic about farming and the upcoming course. At night I hear the war stories as well as the stories of their post military treatment by the various support services. Why does their government continue to fund these services when they clearly do very little good for returned soldiers? Why are their many specialist skills unrecognized by the government? If this is the method one would use to create dissent and radicals among the hundred of thousands combat veterans. It seems to be working .
I’m in the car again heading to Portland, Oregon on a wide freeway. People appear to be driving huge vehicles with massive engines just to carry one person. A huge red pick-up truck a mile long cruises past with a small man driving… No wonder America needs so much fuel. Wray, my 26-year-old co-passenger, relates how he had PTSD on return from Iraq and the V.A gave him a mess of drugs that really screwed up his reality. Once he gave them up he was able to make up his mind that any healing he needed wasn’t going to come from the government that caused the problems in the first place. All our vets on the training have had similar experiences and are now open for something completely different.
Portland is a very funky city with many organic markets, organic supermarkets, organic coffee shops and restaurants. Permaculture has crept in between the cracks here and there is a strong green vibe to the city. It also has the most strip joints per capita I’m told. In the distance I can see snow capped mountains making a nice backdrop as we enter the city. Our first stop is “Hop-Inn”; one of the many microbreweries Portland is famous for. I’m threatened with death unless I consume many beers… I comply. Several types of beer appear in front of me. They love brewing with hops for sure and each beer was so bitter I could swear it was some form of malaria medicine. Yeeach! I eventually settle for a cherry cider.
That afternoon we make it to our project site and meet Colonel Cool, actually his name in Doug Kuhl, and he’s cool. Doug operates a crisis line for vets in trouble and according to Doug, there in no end of trouble a disgruntled vet can get into. On the veteran’s suicide hotline, Doug has heard it all… I wonder if there is a hotline Doug calls when he’s had enough. Doug has volunteered his land for our permaculture veteran rehab experiment. We immediately begin building a field school camp.
Thankfully I have the assistance on the training side from local permaculture specialist Deston Dennison Deston is an expert on all kinds of local fauna and flora and I might as well be on another planet coming from the tropics. Deston has a large capacity chainsaw and proceeds to cut the timber we will need for our 2-week course. He’s a handy guy to have as a co-trainer.
The camp kitchen is the first thing the team builds on the first day. Many people in the local community have donated tables, cooking gear, food, stoves, everything one could wish for in a camp kitchen. Several organic farms from the area have donated boxes of fresh vegetables and meat. I’m amazed what these veterans have sourced from their local community. The civilians have really stretched themselves to help these people, especially in these harsh economic times.
I get a donated tent and a couple of loan sleeping bags for my accommodation. Camping in the woods suits me just fine! I browse on the wild blackberries, blueberries, apples and raspberries in the bush.
The camp takes a day to rig and we start the course clearing blackberry prickles from and old fenced area we will convert into a garden. Soon we all look like we have been fighting wildcats as the thorny vines take their toll. Lots of cuts and scratches all round. No complaints. The vets have borrowed a truckload of tools from the local tool-bank. Blue skies and a gentle sun make the living conditions in the forest a pleasant experience. I snack on more wild black berries as well as blueberries I’d pay a fortune for in Australia. We work hands-on for 4 hours each morning in the garden and spend the afternoons in our outdoor classroom.
Deston has rabbits he’s bought as a food source and we devise some methods the veterans can use to butcher them without fear or pain for the animals. Several days into the training we decide rabbit meat would go well as the evening meal. We try the first method of slaughter. Deston screws a large red hook into a post. The idea is to quickly snap the rabbit’s neck using the hook. The rabbit is caught and the group watches as Deston holds the bunny up to the hook on the post. He pulls rapidly down to break the neck but the hook bends… the rabbit doesn’t enjoy this. Oh dear! We all cringe, as the death of the bunny takes longer than planned. Poor bugger! The hook method doesn’t get the best practice vote until we screw the hook deep into the post and try again. This time its fast and almost humane. I wouldn’t use the hook!
One vet has a simple method for a fast rabbit death. He has a very small pistol, a Saturday night special. Stroking the rabbit he sneaks the barrel of the pistol behind the bunny’s skull and pulls the trigger. For a small gun it make a deafening bang! The rabbit shakes a bit and falls dead. He never saw it coming. Definitely the way I’d like to be killed if I were a bunny.
My method is the “whip the head off with a machete” trick. Rabbit is stretched over a stump and WHAM! 9 seconds… Quick, but a bit messy. The vote for the quickest and most humane kill goes to “the pistol shot to the head trick”. No shortage of guns in America. Our team dines on roasted rabbit that night.
We dig several raised garden beds each day. The physical work makes the vets sweat. Many of the vets say they are sleeping well compared to the erratic sleep they get at their homes. We add composted cow manure and mulch the beds with straw or hay. Using the Fukuoka method we seed each bed with a variety of local vegetable seed . No hybrids here. We plant Chard, Collards, beets and many other vegetables that will handle the cool winter months in Oregon.
The vets cook their own lunch taking turns in the kitchen. After lunch we sit on our straw bales under the shade of a fir tree and go over the theory of why and what we did hands-on in the garden. Deston adds the local content giving lists of species needed in these American ecosystems.
I show the vets some films of Uganda with returning soldiers and what they have to experience after 25 years of living in the bush during a guerilla war. No support from the government and only the NGO’s to help if they are lucky. I explain they, the American veterans, are luckier than in most countries. At least they have their civilian population to support them. Here in the US veterans are overwhelmed with options to get funding, are they real options? I explain focusing on what they don’t have will blind them to what they do have. They have to use what resources they can get to set themselves up into sustainable livelihoods now. WAKE UP! The economy in the USA is still heading downwards. There aren’t any other real choices out there at the moment.
They must also have unity amongst themselves to achieve anything lasting. Working with their new skills to create sustainable farms and communities gives these guys a new “mission”, where they can still be warriors. I’ve seen this work many times in many countries for many wounded warriors. Evidence-based best practice. Nobody escapes a war without trauma.
At the end of 2 weeks we have built a fair sized garden, which we estimate will feed a large extended family daily for all meals. We have a fish-boned pattern with a log herb spiral as the fish’s head. Doug has almost single handedly dug a fishpond. We have restored a bunch of blueberry shrubs. A rabbit hutch compost system is also added. We have a trellis that extends in a curved arc on a raised bed planted with cucumber. We call it “Spiderman” due to the amount of string we wove through the sticks. The hands-on is finished and now its time for the final exercise…
Designing a farm looks easy when students can draw a 2 dimensional plan. To really drive home design, its best when they must instead construct a 3-D model. The model gives the students the understanding how elements are inter-related and where they best serve the system and are to be placed accordingly.
The Veterans model is a futuristic version of Doug’s property and everybody has a hand in its design. Taking turns each of the students gets the floor to explain how the design works. We have a multifunction barn that will house the workers, a pig tractor system, a poultry tractor system, accommodation and vegetable cropping systems as well as the farm’s 100 year old apple trees restored to a productive state. I press them to work out how this farm can make them a living. How will it pay? I make them phase the design so they can show what steps they will take first to make this design a reality.
The course ends with me handing out certificates with handshakes and smiles all round. It’s time to pack up the camp, and prepare for an exit.
I say goodbye to my new friends and watch Portland slip away out the window of the Amtrak . We speed through farms, forests, cities and along the coast… beautiful America. Too bad it’s going down the gurgler!
The Canadians are friendly at the border control and give me a big smile as I’m welcomed to their country. I think back on my 3 week experience and silently wish my veterans the best of luck… they are going to need it very soon!