What if there were a way to help our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans re-enter society and find a career they loved that also healed the trauma of combat?
Michael O'Gorman, one of the pioneers of the organic food movement and founder of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, may have done just that—through the rejuvenating power of growing delicious and healthy food.
A father of a young veteran, O'Gorman started the Farmer-Veteran Coalition after he learned that many men and women from rural and farming communities were entering the army. When they came back, they were left with trauma and a lack of employment opportunities.
O’Gorman says, "We thought, not only can we help them find jobs, new ways to farm and rejuvenate the income in rural America, we could also help solve America’s need for more farmers and for food security.”
The idea is working, and veterans are turning to O'Gorman for help.O'Gorman says, "We’ve had veterans come to us and have been told that this guy is unemployable because he’s just dealing with his experience. A month later, he’s clean and sober. A year later, he’s on a farm and making good money and going to school to study agriculture. Two years later he wants to get his own farm."
One veteran who sought O'Gorman's guidance is John Mclaughlin. Mclaughlin grew up farming beef cattle, alfalfa, and corn with his dad and grandfather in California's San Joaquin Valley.
After high school, Mclaughlin entered the army and spent nearly five years in service. He earned a Purple Heart and several commendations during his time in Iraq.
In March 2004, a roadside bomb ended Mclaughlin's tour in Iraq. Left with scarring, brain swelling and equilibrium issues, he was in and out of hospitals and therapy sessions for years following the injury.
“What made things better for me," Mclaughlin says, "was going back to the ranch and not having the therapy of being inside a cement building with doctors telling me they understand what’s going on. Returning back to the ranch, riding my horses and working with cattle and plants was really the healing process for me.”
Mclaughlin now goes on the road with O’Gorman speaking to other vets and paving the way for their careers in agriculture.
Edgar Hercila, also an Iraq war veteran, is on active duty in the U.S. Hercila is a civil affairs specialist and spent more than a year in Iraq addressing the needs of urban areas.
“I can’t tell you how many schools we rebuilt,” he says. “We rebuilt clinics and hospitals. Directly in agriculture, we gave out seeds, wheat and barley, humanitarian aid and set up greenhouses.”
Coming back, Hercila says, “You have to re-establish yourself again.” This thought led Hercila to O’Gorman, and he has been involved with Farmer-Veteran Coalition ever since.
O'Gorman says of all the veterans he's worked with: "There’s this wide experience they’ve had that the rest of the culture hasn’t had. If we tap into it and channel it, it’s an incredible transformation, and it’s incredibly exciting to be involved in."
Kelly Meyer, founder of Teaching Garden, an organization that gives kids in low-income and urban neighborhoods an opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables at their schools, met O'Gorman soon after Farmer-Veteran Coaliton was established.
Starting with that meeting, vets from the Farmer-Veteran Coalition have been teaching kids how to grow their own healthy and delicious fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Recently, at a Teaching Garden event at Nevin Elementary School in Los Angeles, John Mclaughlin said, “I try to recommend to veterans and young kids to go outside and become involved in a living plant. I think it’s self-gratifying for a veteran and also a child to plant a seed and see the result.”
Chi Kim, the principal of Point Dume Marine School in Malibu, is also involved with Teaching Garden. She says of the vets, “Veterans have committed their lives to save the country, and when they come back from war they need another mission, another goal to set their path."
Kelly Meyer of Teaching Garden says, "We have a very strong military and a lot of manpower….With these brains, this power and energy, we could have whole food for everybody."
As much as any of the vets, O'Gorman feels he has undergone a true transformation. He says, "It has been the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life....To see that young people with such capacity find a place to put their abilities and their strengths and give back to society in a new whole way is a wonderful experience."