Give a veteran a 'green thumb' and you could give them a new purpose

Kaylah Jackson
August 08, 2018 - 4:55 pm

Photo courtesy of Brian Sales

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Every Saturday, 14 veterans gather at Vets Place Central in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to tend to their respective plants: Cucumber, Kale, Eggplant, Okra, and Sage. In between, they laugh, joke, and bond. It’s like their own little sanctuary—this is organic therapy at work.

Organic therapy isn’t new though, organizations like the Center for Veterans Issues have been implementing it for years. And for veterans like Brian Sales, not only is it a great alternative to medication but it provides a byproduct that can be healthier and fresher then what you might find in the store.

Sales joined the U.S. Army in 1997, a month after graduating high school. But after 10 years as an infantryman, complete with an overseas tour in Kosovo and two combat tours to Iraq, he was pretty fried from deployments.

“I decided to see if the grass was greener on the other side but oh boy was I wrong,” says Sales.

Sales felt pretty good after separating, he didn’t think he had any mental issues and soon secured a job as a commercial tire center manager. But like many veterans, Sales didn’t find much fulfillment sitting at a desk and reviewing paperwork.

“I came from being in a very structured social engagement atmosphere to not having anyone. From that realization also sparked the PTSD symptoms and it just got worse from there” says Sales. “At one point, I was homeless and all I was doing was self-medicating but finally, I decided that wasn’t the pathway I wanted to go.”

That's when Sales reached out to VA. In addition medical benefits he decided to also take advantage of his G.I. Bill.  

Sales attended Everglades University in Boca Raton, Florida, and studied alternative and renewable energy management, which teaches students everything about sustainability, from food production to energy efficiency.

Sales, along with another veteran in his class were so interested in the sustainability space, they wanted to put their education to work, but not necessarily in a corporate environment. They wanted to be social entrepreneurs and provide opportunities for veterans like themselves. That’s how Green Veterans was born.

The Green Veterans Initiative launched in 2013 and has active chapters in Wisconsin and South Florida, with five more in the process of mobilizing. Through reintegration, sustainability training, service projects, and trauma resolution, the organization teaches veterans about green living and green job opportunities.

Photo courtesy of Brian Sales

Green Veterans, is now part of  GoundWork Milwaukee, who also works in partnership with the Center for Veterans Issues to offer an organic therapy program to veterans, giving them hands-on training in urban agriculture. Veterans also earn a small stipend for their work and see psychiatrists on a weekly basis who can track their progress through the program.

Green veterans focuses on teaching sustainability by engaging the community. Organic Therapy is only one of their projects. They also partner with groups like Habitat for Humanity, The American Legion and Mission United to use urban agriculture to help underserved communities, building greenhouses and mentoring young people.  

“There’s something about touching soil that’s an antidepressant,” says Sales. “They’re seeing something from seed to plant to now they’re eating something from that plant they buried a few weeks ago…you know the whole transformation from planting something to making it come alive and then, from there, harvesting the fruits of your labor.”

Organic therapy keeps veterans busy and gives them a new purpose. For Sales, he’s totally stopped taking his VA-prescribed medication since he’s begun farming. In fact, he might have found that the grass…eggplant…or cucumbers can be greener on the other side.

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