With the Oct. 27 announcement of the end of operations for U.S. Marines and British armed forces in Afghanistan's Helmand province, the attention must now shift to the work that needs to be done at home. High on that list is finding better ways to treat the invisible injuries that have always been part of a service member's war experience – ways that go beyond current conventional therapeutic and medical interventions.
To that end, a pathway that demands attention is being rediscovered by groups of veterans living outside Ithaca, New York, and elsewhere.
These former lost souls found relief from the effects of their military experience through nature, and their journey has been chronicled by Stephanie Westlund in her book, "Field Exercises." The book recounts their experiences as they turned to outdoor activities such as farming and gardening as a needed supplementary approach to dealing with recovery and reintegration into civilian life.
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A professor at the University of Calgary, Westlund began her research with veterans in 2009, when she became aware of a growing grass-roots movement among many veterans seeking ways beyond conventional treatment to manage their stress injuries and found that digging into nature provided an additional measure of support, relief and healing in their lives. This was consistent with her empirical research on how nature can provide a boost in well-being in people that touches on physical, psychological and emotional levels.
She learned that the concept of war veterans turning to nature for occupation, support and healing has historical roots. In his book "Defiant Gardens," Kenneth Helphand traces this behavior to World War I soldiers planting and harvesting gardens in battlefield trenches as a way of asserting what he calls "the dignity of life." What became known as "garden therapy" was later used to treat shell shock, the forerunner of post-traumatic stress disorder. Known as horticulture therapy, it was also practiced in U.S. veterans hospitals during World War II.
Today it is called green care. Though there has been no organized health-care discussion of green care in the U.S. or Canada, in the United Kingdom social and therapeutic horticulture is an increasing part of the health-care portfolio. According to Westlund, more than 1,000 programs provide such care to more than 21,000 people per week. It is also a widely accepted health-care option in Belgium, Norway, Slovenia and the Netherlands.
In the U.S., nonprofit groups such as Ithaca's Veterans' Sanctuary and the Farmer Veteran Coalition are creating opportunities for former military personnel to take up farming.
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The FVC's chief of staff, Tia Christopher, says, "We've found that when veterans can follow a plant cycle – when they prepare the earth, they plant the seed, they nurture it, they harvest it and they eat it or they sell it – that process in itself is healing."
The goal for members of the Veterans' Sanctuary garden is sustainable food security, independence and resilience. A partner project of Cornell University's Center for Transformative Action, the sanctuary runs on a relatively low budget compared with other outreach programs for veterans. Funding is the major challenge for this program and others if they're to thrive and grow.
According to figures released by the Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 1 in 5 people who commit suicide in this country are veterans, even though veterans make up only about 10 percent of the U.S. population. PTSD among previously deployed service members is estimated to be nearly 14 percent. The actual figures may actually be much higher.
It's time to take a page from the past and invest some green into green as a supplement to traditional treatments.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.