When Matthew Aamot learned the younger brother who followed him into the Army had been killed in Afghanistan, he wanted to “scream and cry and freeze time right there.”
He and his brother had been close, sharing the same passions growing up, from raising chickens to enlisting in the military.
The death of Spc. Aaron Aamot “was the hardest thing that ever hit me,” Matthew Aamot said.
Aaron Aamot was a member of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment. He died in November 2009, one of the last of the 22 soldiers from the battalion who were killed during a brutal combat tour.
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Since that day, Matthew Aamot has been working to turn his grief into something that may help other veterans recover from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He returned to his roots, getting out on the farm and joining a Whatcom County organization called Growing Veterans. It aims to provide former troops some “dirt therapy” by learning how to grow their own food.
Out in the field, volunteers often find they’re able to reconnect with what many of them enjoyed most about their time in the military: working with other people toward a shared goal.
“When you’re in the military, you have a camaraderie, a brotherhood around you,” said Aamot, 38. “And then it’s like a brick wall hits you when you’re on your own.”
Founded by former Marine Chris Brown three years ago, Growing Veterans is based at a 3-acre farm in Lynden. Its volunteers also work at a separate, larger site in the Skagit Valley.
It’s been getting national recognition as a leader in a veterans farming movement that has sprouted over the past few years to put former troops to work in agriculture, an industry that is bracing for turnover from an aging workforce.
Growing Veterans also sells food at farmers markets, including one that takes fresh produce to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle every Thursday.
Aamot is there most weeks as the program’s market manager.
“It’s a great time talking to veterans there. Every week I meet somebody new, somebody different,” he said.
Almost 20 years ago, Aamot served as an Army tank driver in Kuwait and Bosnia. Little brother Aaron Aamot enlisted, too, after he graduated from Ferndale High School in 2006.
Matthew Aamot knew the risks Aaron faced when he deployed to war for the first time with JBLM’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The family met on Father’s Day just before Aaron left, taking time for a portrait that included all eight siblings.
Aamot’s fears heightened as he followed news of heavy casualties in his brother’s battalion. The 1-17 lost nine soldiers that August in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, conveying to Aamot that his brother was in the thick of hard fighting.
The bad news hit even closer to home that fall while Aaron Aamot traveled back to Afghanistan after his mid-tour home leave. A massive bomb on Oct. 27 killed seven soldiers and an interpreter who served with Aamot in the battalion’s Charlie Company. He knew all of them well.
“I don’t think any of us grasped how bad it was” until then, Matthew Aamot said.
Aaron Aamot went out on a patrol shortly after he returned to his company. On Nov. 5, a buried bomb hit the Stryker vehicle he was riding in, flipping it and igniting a fire that burned for a day.
The bomb killed him and Spc. Gary Gooch while wounding two more soldiers. A reporter from National Public Radio was riding along on the mission and aired a story days later describing the care soldiers took with their killed friends after the explosion.
Aaron Aamot was 22 years old.
The blast left a permanent mark on his family. Two more brothers, Dale and Ethan, would follow Matthew and Aaron into the Army, deploying to Afghanistan in 2011. They came home safely after a year in combat.
Matthew Aamot built a network with other veterans from his brother’s battalion. He stays in touch with them and encourages them in their different approaches to rebuilding their lives at home after war.
He traveled to Olympia in March, where he joined Mark Oravksy, another veteran from the Stryker brigade, at a conference that promoted farming as a therapy and a career for troops.
“It helps without even thinking about it,” Aamot said.
On a recent day at the Lynden farm, he walked through rows of zucchini and kale, looking for ripe vegetables ready for market. He gave advice to this summer’s volunteers, pointing out weeds that needed to be pulled and vegetables that had to be picked.
The former soldiers and Marines on the farm that day looked relaxed, working together to care for their farm.
“Out of that tragedy has some come some really good things,” Aamot said. “This is a place to combat veteran isolation with solid peer support.”