Bristol Marine seeks to connect veterans to farming
BRISTOL — By August 2006, exchanging fire with insurgents was so routine that the U.S. Marines in Lance Cpl. Jon Turner’s platoon in Ramadi, Iraq, expected it like clockwork.
So when Turner, just after he rose one morning and began preparing to go out on post, heard the distinctive thoomp of a 120-millimeter mortar fired from outside the compound, he wasn’t surprised.
“I looked at my watch and thought, ‘Oh wow, they’re late,’” Turner recounted in a recent interview at his Bristol home. “You know what that is, it’s a 120 coming in.”
The first round struck the roof of the barracks as Turner, on his third tour of duty and second in Iraq, sat on his bed. The second landed just outside the window, blasting shrapnel into Turner’s face. Just before impact, he slouched slightly — an inadvertent action that would have enormous consequences.
“That half inch of relaxation was enough to save my life, because it would have severed my carotid artery,” Turner said.
The small piece of metal knocked him unconscious; he said it felt like being struck by a fastball. He survived, but his ordeal was hardly over. The next day, a vehicle Turner was riding on the way to the city’s government center struck a roadside bomb. He was treated by doctors, and despite suffering two traumatic brain injuries in 18 hours, was sent back to his post. Turner said unless soldiers sustain serious battlefield injuries, they’re soon back to duty.
“That’s just the mentality of war,” he said. “If it’s a small thing they put you right back into it.”
Turner received an honorable discharge from the Marines the following year, and the 22-year-old came home with a Purple Heart commendation and a piece of shrapnel still lodged beneath his jaw. But the invisible scars posed a greater danger.
Turner sought help for psychological issues he believes were induced and exacerbated by service in combat zones. He said he does not believe the military does an adequate job providing mental health care for service members, and fails to help veterans reintegrate to civilian life. He’s heard countless horror stories about veterans’ interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and has had a few of his own.
Now 29, Turner has decided to commit himself to helping veterans cope with battlefield stresses and re-acclimate to life after war. This year he purchased two and a half acres of open land in Bristol, which he is in the process of turning into a farm where veterans can share their experiences with each other, or just spend time in the wilderness. He’s christened it the Wild Roots Farm.
“They don’t even need to be social with me,” Turner said. “They can just come here and do their thing.”
Turner does not look like an archetypal soldier. He’s slender and fit, and sports a blonde beard and tattoos on the back of both hands. He is soft-spoken and articulate, and pauses amid talking about his service to make sure a non-veteran can keep up with all the military jargon. The steady timbre of his voice portrays the passion he holds for the struggles he and fellow veterans — friends and those he has yet to meet — face every day.
When Turner first purchased the land, it didn’t look like it had much potential for agriculture. The plot, on Lower Notch Road, slopes downhill sharply and was heavily wooded. But Turner’s vision is already taking shape. He spent the past summer felling trees to create a clearing on which he’s in the process of building a barn. A fellow veteran from Iraq and another from Afghanistan have helped him, but for the most part he’s doing the work himself.
Next spring he plans to plant vegetables and fruit trees, and also raise a flock of meat birds. But the focus will be on veterans.
Turner said he’s not interested in any revenue the farm might generate. Rather, he just wants to create a place where veterans of any age can feel comfortable and supported.
“I’m not here to pay anyone; they can take some food,” Turner said. “There’ll be a farm chores board set up.”
This isn’t the first time Turner is trying to connect with fellow veterans. Since he left the Marines in 2007, he was worked with hundreds of veterans through poetry and other creative outlets.
Turner is no stranger to military culture; a member of his family has fought in every conflict since the American Revolution, and both his parents served in the U.S. Air Force. He said enlisting in the Marines seemed like a natural choice for him.
“It was one of those things you do because you think you’re doing something right,” he said. “I wanted to do something noble for my country.”
Historically, he said, veterans are reluctant to talk about the horrors they have witnessed or the trauma they have endured. At the farm, he hopes veterans will feel like they can speak openly about their experiences in war.
“You see Vietnam veterans who have held onto their emotions for the last 40 years, and they open up just a little bit,” he said. “They’re starting to break down that barrier. They’re more human.”
He said younger veterans are more comfortable talking about their service, and recognize that mental health issues like post-traumatic stress should not be ignored.
“Our generation, we understand that our stories create burdens within our lives and families, but it’s still difficult to talk about them,” Turner said. “If we have the opportunity to meet on a common ground, a farm field, we may be able to open ourselves up in a dialogue.”
Turner said while he feels at peace in nature, he is still plagued by the demons of war. He knows he cannot completely shield his wife, Cathy, and two children from the struggles he still faces.
“My wife has gone through the war with me on several occasions, on several nights,” Turner said. “It’s not OK for her to have to experience that.”
Cathy is a yoga instructor, which Turner said helps him cope.
“With her own practice, she can help me return to myself,” he said. “There’s times she knows I’m going to have a two-week bout where I’m just not there. I might physically be there, but I’m not present.”
WILD ROOTS ORIGINS
Turner said while he was in the military, a culture existed among officers and enlisted service members alike that criticized those who sought mental health care.
“There was a couple people in our company, one in particular who was my roommate in my platoon, who was ragged on hard because he went to a psychiatrist to say he was having issues after his first tour,” Turner recalled. “I think because the war was pretty new for those of us who were in Iraq, there wasn’t a full understanding of the psychological effects of going to war.”
The young Marine, who joined the military after graduating high school in Connecticut, wasn’t immune to these issues. Turner recalled how his own mental health deteriorated during his first deployment.
“When I was 19 years old I was pretty much a full-blown alcoholic and had insomnia, and that was only from going to Haiti for four months,” Turner said. “That only worsened in time, after repeated tours.”
He said it took him months to acknowledge he needed to seek help, and four months to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. Turner said he does not feel his treatment was adequate.
“Their response was, ‘Here, try these meds,’ and there wasn’t any other solution,” he said. “The last six months I was in I was on six different medications, ranging from nerve pain to sleep meds to anti-anxiety to antidepressants. Anything. That was my cocktail.”
The medication so altered his mental state that he didn’t feel like himself anymore.
“I was a zombie and was suicidal,” he recalled. “It got to the point where I realized something had to change, otherwise I wasn’t going to be alive anymore.”
Turner found solace in spending time outdoors, and in nature dissociated himself from the military culture.
On leave while still in the service, Turner visited a high school friend who lived in Vermont. The state’s picturesque beauty captivated him.
“I came up for three days and stayed a week and got an extension,” Turner said. “It made an impression on me to say, ‘When I’m done, I’m coming up here.’”
He said the close-knit culture of rural Vermont reminded him of the camaraderie within the military, and said veterans often struggle to replace that support system when they return home.
“There’s still a part where you need to nurture yourself that you don’t entirely get in the military,” Turner said. “When I came up to Vermont, I felt that people accepted me just based on my prior experience.”
His experiences on that trip inspired him to move to Vermont, and ultimately create the Wild Roots Farm. Turner said he hopes the farm will become a chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit with chapters in Iowa and Maine that is dedicated to helping veterans interested in agriculture become educated in the industry.
Turner said he spoke with officials in the organization, who were receptive to branching into Vermont.
“We have a large amount of veterans, and Vermont is ahead of the game in sustainability and agricultural resources,” Turner said.
Turner said the stresses of daily life in a combat zone prevent soldiers from looking out for themselves. He hopes at Wild Roots, veterans will take the time to examine their own needs.
“Most times overseas you’re in a hostile environment, focusing on not getting the person next to you killed,” he said. “Working a way to provide nourishment, watching it grow, there’s something that happens on a different level that you’re finally able to take care of yourself.”
As Veterans Day approaches, Turner said he’s unsure how to react when strangers thank him for his military service. He said a disconnect exists between veterans and the general public, who cannot possibly comprehend what it is like to endure the stresses of combat.
“I always struggle getting thanked for having gone to war,” Turner said. “Part of me is sympathetic, because I understand the subjects of war and veterans are a slippery slope for a lot of people, because they don’t know.”
Turner said he tells people to, instead of shaking the hands of uniformed service members on the street or at the airport, welcome veterans home.
“We don’t get welcomed home,” he said. “We get thanked for our service, and people honestly don’t know why they’re thanking us, for the most part.”
Turner said whenever he meets a veteran, he welcomes him or her home, remembering what it felt like to not be welcomed himself.
“Not being welcomed home is one of the most unkind things that can happen to a veteran,” Turner said. “I know what effect that had on me, and it’s taken me eight and a half years since I returned to feel at home.”
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