Military veterans sometimes have trouble making a transition to civilian life, but a new community garden in Olympia has been established as a sanctuary to help them heal.
The garden is the first local project from Growing Veterans South Sound, part of the Garden-Raised Bounty program (GRuB) in partnership with Growing Veterans of Whatcom County.
Volunteers began clearing a half-acre parcel Monday at the corner of Arbutus Street Northeast and Milas Avenue Northeast, just south of Reeves Middle School.
Olympia resident Mark Oravsky, coordinator of Growing Veterans South Sound, has seen the transforming power of gardening firsthand. He left the Army in 2011 after serving 14 years, including a deployment to the Middle East that he described as a “rough ride with lots of deaths.”
The transition to civilian life was tough. Despite enrolling in college and earning good grades, he soon descended into a cycle of depression and substance abuse.
“It’s difficult to connect with the public,” said Oravsky, 37. “We’ve experienced trials, tribulations and traumas that have left us deeply scarred.”
Eventually, he hit rock bottom. After sobering up, he said his life turned around about a year ago when he started volunteering for GRuB, a nonprofit organization that has built more than 2,300 backyard and community gardens in the Olympia area since 1993.
From there, he got connected with Growing Veterans. The entire experience has given him the strength to connect with people again while working in agriculture — a therapeutic setting where participants get their hands dirty and produce life.
“Pushing the margins of my reality was pivotal to me,” he said.
About 40 people attended Monday’s work event. Volunteers cleared garbage, piles of branches, bushels of blackberry canes and layers of carpet that had been installed long ago to suppress weeds. Volunteers included people from the community and AmeriCorps, as well as active-duty and retired military personnel.
The half-acre garden is owned by Karen Klocke, who lives next door and is leasing the land to GRuB for $1 a year. Klocke, a master gardener, said the site has been in her family for about 60 years. She reached out to GRuB to see if anyone was interested in revitalizing the land.
Military service has a rich tradition in Klocke’s family and makes the project that much sweeter. Her grandfather served in World War I, her father in World War II. Both men struggled with physical and mental ailments. Gardening was one way for them to find peace and healing.
“We have a deep connection to the veterans,” Klocke said Monday as volunteers cleared the land. “My dad would be tickled pink.”
Olympia resident Rick Bernsten will be the “farm manager” for the new community garden. Bernsten retired in 2013 after 14 years in the Army, including two tours of Iraq and a deployment to Kosovo. Gardening may not be the answer for every veteran, he said, but the project offers a chance to integrate into the community and fulfill a desire to serve.
“There’s space for everybody out here,” he said.
Navy veteran Matt West, 29, also was there Monday. West works for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs and often helps military personnel with their transition to civilian life.
Despite the skills and work ethic that men and women hone while serving in the military, those attributes don’t always translate to the civilian world, he said. After finishing five years in uniform, West went straight to college, which like the military had a structure that was already set. It wasn’t until after college that he struggled to find his footing in civilian life, he said.
“In the military, there’s always a purpose that you didn’t have to decide,” West said Monday. “When you are out in the civilian world, you have a purpose and you have to get something done, but you don’t know the ways to go about it.”
Olympia resident Dennis Mills of Veterans for Peace praised the garden program as a positive outlet for veterans coping with the traumas of their military careers.
“In the military, they had a sense of belonging; then they’re out and they have nothing. Often, they self-medicate and worse,” he said. “We’re dealing with too many veterans who need help.”
One of the goals of Growing Veterans is to change the legacy of post-9/11 veterans, Oravsky said.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 22 veterans commit suicide every day, with more than 69 percent of those among veterans ages 50 and older. The department also reports that about 12 percent of the adult homeless population is made up of veterans.
As of 2014, Washington state has a military veteran population of about 603,623, with about 32,000 in Thurston County, according to the department.