By Linda Wondra
Public Affairs Officer
Friday, April 24, 2015
Veterans at the Jonathan M. Wainwright VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington, celebrated Earth Day by planting broccoli and cabbage in the medical center’s Healing Ground garden. Located on a hill next to the VA’s historic chapel overlooking a field where early morning sightings of deer are common, The Healing Ground is tended by Veterans for the fourth consecutive year.
The idea to start back up a garden after years of dormancy came from a brainstorming session between the chief of Home and Community Based Services and her administrative officer while considering new ways to introduce the Complementary and Alternative Medicine program started in 2011. The 2,725 sq. ft. plot of fertile soil was a natural place to plant, and staff members worked with community partners to get the project started.
Walla Walla Community College students helped to construct a fence. An AmeriCorps volunteer with gardening experience assisted in getting the project off the ground. Over time, Veterans started attending daily morning gardening classes, seeking the sunshine and the peaceful environment as a place to heal from their physical and emotional pain, thus aptly named The Healing Ground.
Many Veterans have been touched by their experiences in the garden. Working in the garden is considered a form of therapy — spending time there is recorded in a patient’s medical chart. From March through October Veterans are encouraged to come voluntarily to the garden during class time. Those who come most often are residents in two inpatient rehabilitation programs which last from 30-60 days.
On any given day there can be as few as one Veteran in class, or as many as nine, and they come expecting different things from their hour. For the new Veteran, the social worker who facilitates the experience gives them an overview of the garden and an idea of different tasks they can choose from. When asked what they hope to get out of their experiences, common answers are “Getting my hands dirty in the ground,” or, “I want to enjoy being outside on this sunny day,” or “To think about an issue I’m having, with the clarity of fresh air.”
Veterans will sometimes work in the garden together in small groups so they can talk to each other. Because they spend a lot of time together in classes and groups, they obviously share common goals striving to be addiction-free as well as working towards being well-balanced and integrating mindfulness tools they have learned. Working in the dirt — pulling weeds, planting seeds, harvesting vegetables — may facilitate conversations more naturally than in a clinical setting.
On days when there may be only one Veteran in the garden, it’s possible the Veteran will open up to the social worker about personal things because he or she is looking at the ground — not face to face. During these experiences it is evident that the act of gardening is a way to work on self-compassion and forgiveness, to move on and feel empowered to change what they can.
Veteran Micheal Cox has been coming to the garden faithfully for the past two years. He says working in the garden gets his mind off the constant pain he deals with and has a calming effect. Micheal has been dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI) ever since he fell 24 feet while working for a construction company in 2006.
His TBI issues weren’t diagnosed by private doctors and he went through a difficult period trying to understand why he couldn’t get past the pain and constant spinning in his head. He dealt with depression issues, wanted to get off all the painkillers, ended up getting incarcerated, was homeless for a period, and had to deal with cancer.
It was VA that finally diagnosed Micheal with TBI. Spending time in Walla Walla VA’s Residential Rehabilitation Unit programs has helped him understand everything that he has been dealing with. He was also prescribed to get a service dog, Bug, who is always by his side. Bug can sense when he is losing control and jumps into action to help calm him.
The Healing Ground has brought out many community partners. Plant starts are donated by Welcome Table Farm, a local organic establishment, and some seeds have been donated by the Walla Walla Community College Agriculture Center for Excellence. Volunteer groups from Whitman College and AmeriCorps come out to prepare the ground in the spring and put the garden to bed in the fall. The produce that the Veterans don’t eat is donated to local food banks. In the past several years, thousands of pounds of produce were donated to Blue Mountain Action Council for local consumption.
Jill Juers, coordinator of the Complementary and Alternative Medicine program and overseer of The Healing Grounds garden, says working in the garden is therapeutic for everyone involved. Being able to see Veterans come full circle from not being able to identify a particular vegetable, to harvesting and then tasting it for the first time is very satisfying. Each spring, the garden is a blank slate and a new experience for all involved.
Micheal continues to come to the garden, sometimes bringing along his little friend Gabriel, who is the grandson of a friend and family who helped him get back on his feet when he was homeless. Gabriel likes to help with the planting, and then wants Micheal to watch him roll down the hills.
Micheal loves to spoil kids, and says getting down to a kid’s level helps him leave that bad place in his head when he is having trouble coping with too much stimuli. “I’m much better today,” says Micheal. “I take it one day at a time, and coming to this garden is a safe haven for me.”