We all know how difficult it can be for vets when they return from active duty, whether it is a return from battle field deployment, foreign country or even stateside but separated from loved ones for months or years. Many will not seek therapeutic assistance for various reasons, some will appear to return unscathed while others self medicate; all regardless of the situation, will go through some period of adjustment that will lead to either productive (positive) or potentially devastating results. Many of my fellow bloggers have written extensively on the topic of utilizing talk therapy and related approaches with returning vets. I feel that they have done a fantastic job and will not try to reinvent the wheel with this post. I do however want to discuss something that Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm plans to be doing with our local vets (as well as others) in hopes that others will consider doing the same or those who may have an established program may respond with ideas, suggestions and techniques that may help us have improved success. Many vets that I have worked with discussed a feeling of not belonging, of not feeling like they fit back into society; that society no longer welcomed them. They have discussed feeling like they had lost their connection not just to others but to the world in general. I could not help but wonder what would help them feel grounded again; to feel a connection to something bigger than themselves. Talk therapy can and does do wonders but sometimes it is not enough. Years ago I was in charge of a “leisure group” that was designed to help our inpatient clients learn ways to have fun that did not include drug or other negative activities. One activity that we did was to have a quiet slow walk along the river that ran past our property. While walking I noticed some trash and picked it up, carrying it back to the facility trash can for disposal. I got a few weird looks at first and someone asked what I was doing. I replied something along the lines that the world has given us so much that it is my belief that we need to do what we can to give back to it. We rely on it for our lives and it now relied on us in the sense that we needed to stop killing it and start showing it the love it gives us. A few folks thought I was a “hippie weirdo” but soon many others started doing the same while we continued our walk. The next day many showed up to group with garbage bags. The conversations lead to deep areas. People talked about the irony that they were picking up trash when just days before they had been the type that just threw stuff wherever they felt. They started feeling connected to recovery in a tangible way; no longer “just” cleaning themselves up, but cleaning their world as well. All told we cleared dozens of large trash bags, countless tires and furniture and who knows how many cans and bottles. The place began to look great and the people appeared to enjoy giving back; they were connected to something for the first time in who knew how long. Walking along the WIP (farm) I enjoy the sounds of nature. Being a tree farm with some gardens there is plenty of shade, tons of birds, many deer, turkey and coyotes. I see not only what is there but what once was. Once vibrant trails are now overgrown due to a lack hands to maintain them, trees that once were majestic are being choked by invasive vines; it can be beautiful again. I find myself lost in thought on those rare occasions where I can just walk. I was reminded of our vets and the common need to connect. I envisioned contacting the local vet affairs rep and inviting them to come over to the WIP to see if they would be interested in investing time in the farm and in themselves. This would not be therapy but it would be therapeutic. Best of all, this would not cost them anything but their time and they could have a chance to feel grounded and feel a sense of ownership. I imagine them finding an aspect of the farm, maybe a trail or part of a trail that they decide to make their own. Using either our tools or ones they bring in, they begin to feel their hands manipulate the earth, clearing the overgrowth, planting or perhaps building a park bench. Watching nature respond to their touch as they respond to nature; few things make you feel as grounded as when you are literally working in the ground. This does not mean to imply that they will be able to forgo any therapy or medications that they may be utilizing for any mental health needs that they may have, but with a reintegration not only to home but also to the land, they may find that the length of time spent in the aforementioned may be reduced, or the quality of progress improved. I bumped into someone recently and spoke of my idea. He was a business man by trade and by mindset. He seemed to miss the point entirely and simply said something to the effect that “feeling good won’t pay the mortgage or make you richer.” He was right of course when it came to the paying the mortgage but could not be farther from the truth when it came to being richer. In a real sense mental health is a business to be sure. There are bills to pay: salaries, mortgages, lights, heating, cooling, insurances and upkeep mean that charges do have to apply to at least some services but does everything require a dollar sign? As a not for profit we do hope for the occasional small or any size donation to pay the bills and we often do so on finances that are smaller than many folks personal accounts, but we are perhaps some of the richest people I know. Many of us, including the vets who I hope to invite soon, are not considering purchasing a summer home, Lexus or some other fancy car. We are not jet setting the planet nor do we have our own reserved or favorite booth at a fancy restaurant. What we do have however is much more important. We have a desire to serve, we have served and we will continue to do what we can to make a deep and lasting impact not only on our fellow man but to society in general. To me helping a solder dig something other than a foxhole is priceless. They spent their time sacrificing for us so the least we can do is to offer them a place to walk, to think, to get their hands dirty while sharing the beauty that they have planted. There are other groups that will be invited to share this small patch of earth. Some will be enthusiastic at the thought while others will have no interest. That is fine by those of us at the WIP (Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm). As we plow our way into the earth, so too are we plowing our way into new programming. We have no handbook as the programs are growing organically but one day I hope to jot down some outlines so that others may try to do the same. Nurturing in nature.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).