Gardening projects change lives of troubled veterans

Encouraging recovering military veterans to work in community gardens helps lift them out of depression, increases their self-esteem – and even gets them eating better, says Vietnam War vet and gardening guru Howard Hinterthuer.

By , Nourishing the Planet

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    A worker piles compost at a community garden in Chattanooga, Tenn. Working in community gardening programs is proving to have many good effects on troubled military veterans, including raising their self-esteem and creating better eating habits.
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Name: Howard Hinterthuer

Affiliation: Organic Therapy Program

Bio: Howard Hinterthuer served as a medic in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Returning from the war, he found solace by establishing various gardens in Virginia. Today, Howard works as a Peer-to-Peer Mentor for the Organic Therapy Program (OTP), a veterans’ recovery project that promotes healing through organic gardening.

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You recently gave a Ted Talk on the Organic Therapy Program (OTP). Can you tell us how the OTP started and how you, as one of its Peer-to-Peer Mentors, personally became involved with helping veterans recover from the war by gardening?

William Sims, a Vietnam veteran of the 101st Airborne Division who served from 1966 to 1967, started the Organic Therapy Program. Mr. Sims was wounded after being in Vietnam for about 9 months, and returned home to Milwaukee. He was able to deal with the stress of coming home and experiencing combat by puttering around in his mom’s garden. He remembered that.

The Center for Veterans Issues has about 300 or more formerly homeless veterans in transition with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and depression. These veterans come to us and we provide a wrap-around service to deal with their different problems. Mr. Sims figured that if gardening was good for him, then it would be good for other veterans as well. So he began creating raised-bed gardens to help veterans cope with their problems.

IN PICTURES: Serving those who have served: veterans' programs

I was also in the 101st Airborne Division a couple of years later. When I came home, I helped rehabilitate myself by planting a series of gardens in rural Virginia. This was very therapeutic. I was working at Sweet Water Organics as their Executive Director when the Center for Veterans Issues recruited me to become be a Peer-to-Peer Mentor. I took this opportunity because I wanted to help other veterans recover from the war.

Since its establishment four years ago, OTP has expanded into a program that now includes many innovative agricultural practices. What are some of the projects that OTP is currently working on?

The program has evolved over the years. When I first began working with the veterans, I started looking at our food expenditures. Our mess halls service our veterans three times a day and the numbers that we were getting from the mess halls from our surveys were disturbing. We had unusually high expenditures on meat. This was a problem because we serve a population of individuals who are particularly susceptible to diseases related to diet. So we thought of OTP as a way to introduce a better diet for our veterans. There was certainly some social engineering involved in this process. When our veterans say they don’t like something, such as fruits and vegetables, it probably means that they haven’t tried it. I do that sometimes with things, too. So the OTP program took 2 goals: reintegrating veterans into the world and improving their diets. The OTP program is especially important because we’re in a food desert area and it’s hard to get fruits and vegetables here. Now, in our fourth year, there’s enthusiasm and support for the program. Our veterans can’t get enough greens!

Why is it important for veterans in particular to engage in gardening as part of their recovery process?

Gardening is important because it allows our veterans to have an optimistic experience. It takes their mind off of the injustices and bad things that have happened to them in the past, the things that have gotten them to the place of homelessness. The issues veterans suffer from are often chronic; additionally, many veterans are smokers. They’ll smoke and talk about their difficult pasts. But their tone changes when they are in the garden. It’s like magic. Gardening makes sure that they have positive experiences. This is almost guaranteed by the act itself, as it creates such a peaceful place. Gardening is meditative and increases self-esteem. We are trying to assign raised beds to certain people so that there’s an increased sense of ownership. I think that there’s therapeutic value in establishing a pattern of responsible behavior.

How does the OTP introduce veterans to gardening and spark their interest in growing their own food?

OTP brings together people who have gardening in their background with people who don’t. Inevitably, someone who comes into the garden who was raised in Mississippi will talk about their grandmother's and their grandfather’s garden. And for people who haven’t gardened, it’s delightful for them to see where an onion comes from and to pick a cherry tomato off of the vine and pop it in their mouths. When they taste the explosion of sweetness in their labor, it’s easy for them to eat healthier. Once our veterans have tried our produce in the garden, they realize that they like it.

What kind of changes have you seen in the veterans who have been working with OTP?

I’ve seen people evolve in a number of different ways. The most dramatic instance is when someone comes in and they’re extremely depressed. We had a key player last season who was like that. When I explained what we wanted him to do, he’d say, “I’m a good solider. I can do that.” Over the years, though, he worked closely with me on a couple of projects. One day, he was in the garden and told me, “You know, this program has just saved my life.” And now he’s in Nevada talking about his gardening experiences. To engage other veterans, we’re putting in a small aquaponics system that we worked on last year. We’ll redo it again this year. Additionally, we’re thinking of adding a green house. The veterans responsible for assembling these projects need to have some plumbing skills. Cutting barrels in half, working with PVC pipes, and other tasks all require certain skills. Our veterans have to apply carpentry skills, too. When they have the chance to use their skills again and to learn new ones, they feel useful. These projects bring our veterans out of themselves. They take pride in their involvement and love explaining their work to our visitors. They are able to think about what’s possible instead of what’s impossible.

How do you see the program itself changing in the future? Could the concepts behind OTP expand into other veteran recovery programs?

In terms of the future, we’re expanding our gardens and renting out two greenhouses that we’ve used in previous winters. We have received funding through the department of labor for it to heat these green houses with compost. This work will be a part of a jobs program to teach growing skills to our veterans. A big component of our expansion is sustainability. Using compost to heat our green houses is an example of the sustainable techniques we want to apply.  In terms of expanding into other veteran recovery programs, after the TED talk I gave, I was contacted by a woman in Scotland working with veterans of the British military. Her program used horticulture for veterans’ recovery, so I think gardening is an approach to dealing with difficult issues that can definitely be replicated in other places.

• Molly Redfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

• This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

• Sign up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.

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