A Regenerative Ag Incubator for Veterans – Interview with Deston Denniston, Vets Cafe Program (Pac NW) by Willi Paul, permaculture exchange

Axis:Image: 

A Regenerative Ag Incubator for Veterans – Interview with Deston Denniston, Vets Cafe Program (Pac NW) by Willi Paul, permaculture exchange

“As Soldiers become Civilian Veterans, any permanent and/or treatable injuries or illnesses are classified by indelicate bureaucratic processes by the Armed Services medical staff, reinterpreted by VA doctors into their own bureaucratic forms, and then often returned to the soldier come vet with no recognizance of the veterans understanding of the diagnosis, let alone long term care and treatment priorities they face. PTSD or TBI account for a staggering 25% of all veterans claiming disability. Vets typically suffer one or the other severely, though seldom both concurrently and severely.”

Disabled Veteran's Challenges in Transition toward Higher Education by Deston Denniston

“The centerpiece of the Vets Cafe Program will be the creation of a functional farm, modeled after the finest regionally and climate appropriate examples of mixed perennial and animal production. As the name suggests, the program will host seasonal themed fund-raising feasts, “Vets Cafes”, as celebration of all things farm, from pasture to plate. In addition to CSA and Direct Marketing, accents of business operations that create regional draw in the manner of retreat and education centers will quietly promote the real Mission of the program, which is to provide veterans with skills in conservation, agriculture, forestry, ecology and business which will employ them in the creation of food security, resource conservation and ecological restoration.”

RFP: Seeking Washington State Host Site for Veterans Entrepreneurial Training & Studies in Conservation, Agriculture, Forestry and Ecology by Deston Denniston

* * * * * * *

Interview with Deston by Willi

Why is college a “foreign environment” for Vets?

People, like plants, are inclined to certain niches. Plant branches and roots, just like peoples habits, can be ''pruned” or otherwise encouraged to fit a shape. Just fitting in a space isn't the same as having a niche though. Some plants- and people- prune well. The training that vets go through, even if we never see combat, changes our shape forever. That doesn't mean that we all fit into a career military niche- if that was the case there would be a lot more re-enlistment and no forced service extensions. Being suited to a niche is different than being pruned to fit in a place. The 'pruning' of military service is extensive and, just like with plants, some can take it hard as it comes- grapes, or comfrey- and some don't take to it well at all- I'm thinking of a marjoram I nearly lost after cutting it back; the existing growth nearly died and it was 3 years before it grew more than a few leaves.

After a traumatic injury, a huge amount of the body's and the minds energy and resources get tied up the recovery process. It can be months before a trauma survivor can absorb new and unfamiliar information- I mean have it stick and stay, to 'learn'. If the survivor doesn't have adequate supports, things become foreign to that individual; school, counsel, friends, family. This is alienation. Obviously this doesn't happen to every vet. But we should be aware that it happens too often. As an educator I need tools in my kit, skills with my words and hands and openness in my heart to see and check in and be present with those at risk of alienation.

When a soldier who has been wounded by a roadside bomb, or watched a buddy die, or a person who has lived in intense danger for 3 or 5 years, is dropped into a seat next to a person 10 years younger and who has no shared context with the vet save for being in a 120 chair ENG101 classroom, its awkward. Some vets get annoyed. Some vets feel left behind, like his or her youth was lost. Others decide its too late in their career for college, drop out and re-up for another brain jarring enlistment... Its very difficult to make new social connections when one is carrying stories that will never be resolved, living with pain and scars that prevent normal, comfortable movement, and having memories of people where there are none now. Not knowing whether that young person next to them is indifferent, upset by the history the vet carries, or is supportive.... It’s a lot of noise to check in over. Between training and trauma, vets are at a high risk of alienation and drop out in today's colleges.

That’s why vets groups are taking off. College can challenge vets in unique ways that are not common to their non-vet classmates. I have a paper on that linked here. Because of these challenges many vets are becoming proactive about connecting. I have vet pals I go talk conservation and ecology with on a regular basis. We run chainsaws, explore conservation projects, check-out trees. We check in. It’s not therapy, and shouldn't need to be. And that’s why veterans clubs are springing up at campuses around the country. People take care of their people. That’s one of the Permaculture Ethics, right?

You make it seem that all vets are automatically troubled – even ill. Your response?

That’s not my intent. Not all vets go to combat, not all are injured. I didn't go to combat, I was injured in a training accident. Many soldiers operate in support functions far from engagement. Most of the combat vets, unless you catch them in a rough spot, you'd never know they were affected. However, its important to understand that as many as 1 in 4 vets returning form OEF/OIF have suffered TBI, traumatic brain injury, and that as many as half of those go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. 50% or more have ratable PTSD as a result of service related trauma- being shot, watching people be shot, and other horrible experiences. That’s straight from the National Council of Disability's 2009 report on the DOD/VA's response to wounded service personnel. They've been to war. Hell on Earth.

So perhaps half, even up to 70% of the vets returning from combat operations are scarred, emotionally, cognitively and/or physically when they return. Yet only 20% of them start out knowing they were traumatized at all, as many 'sucked it up' and 'drove on' when duty rallied them, and they went without proper care. It’s also important to understand the trauma associated with witnessing violence, or gruesome accidents, has only recently been understood to be disabling. So not every vet is scarred this way, but many who are will face challenges without a record of the injury or incident that led to the challenges they face, much less an understanding of how to face that challenge. That is something educators need to get a handle on if they want to be successful with this population of students. It’s the question of the decade for educators, permaculture teachers included.

Do you think that Vets should have their own college in order to treat their wounds and nurture them?

Not at all. Permaculturists know that many plants do better in a Guild. The same goes for any person. VETS_CAFE is short for “Veterans Entrepreneurial Training and Studies in Conservation, Agriculture, Forestry and Ecology”. The program focuses these studies through a core that allows vets to build a network of peers within their existing collegiate environment and mentors from the community so that they may feel support vital to success. As they draw on this support, and become available to offer support to others they will also be transitioning into their new civilian context, becoming mentor and employers. Vets who have come through and are now valuable members of our communities are important role models for returning vets. It gives them direction and hope as they face their challenges.

And we have such fine veteran mentors right here in our Permaculture cadre who are great examples of how to grow through this challenge. Permaculturists who are not vets also powerfully demonstrate the 'care for the people' ethic, and will understand that this is an opportunity for a wonderful difference to be made in the quality of life for not just the vets, but the communities they will grow to serve. We'll have a functional farm, and one that facilitates transition from the military to a career in these fields. But it will be a farm, not as an institution, or non-profit. It will be a place for vets to gather and share work, picnics, etc., and it will be designed by the vets towards their visions and goals using permaculture's design principles, methods.

How can vets integrate into “normal college life?”

I recall an art class I took years ago. I was really struggling with the idea of an assignment being interpretive. This is also when I was still very close to the head wound, just 2-3 years after it. I thought “How could a task list be interpretive- either the work is done or its not!”- so the open ended nature of an interpretive assignment really confused me. My teacher, Dr. Vivian Varney was a old timer who I'm sure had worked with more than one shell shocked student (and a few hard-asses) in her tenure at Centralia College, and she was- is to this day- a quick intellectual whip. She told me “theory without practice is no practice at all”, and that this assignment was to practice putting paint on 2 or more canvases a day, and to qualify and quantify the affect of the brush size stiffness, pressure, and angle and paint viscosity and thickness on those canvases. No worry about what I painted, it could be lines or shapes or figures or buildings, as long as I qualify and quantify the application of media. I could understand that. I now had clear objectives, goals.

Many vets I speak to who don't have a team feel lost, not because they can’t think for themselves, but because without the team it’s hard to track a mission’s success. It’s hard to relax and just be groovy when the mission is out of focus; It can feel dangerous, make a person anxious, edgy. It can also be a tense but friendly competition- striving to give better support, supplies and resources than was standard just last month. Always striving for improvement. Knowing that my goals were clear and that the team- my arts class- would be able to use this stuff I was learning and that we would share the techniques we played with and together produce better and more interesting visual arts- this motivated me.

Having teachers who understood that was priceless in keeping me in school.

Why is the agriculture sector a wise place for Vets to study?

Before I say why it’s wise, I’ll say why its business savvy. There are perennial polycrop systems pulling down $60, $70, $80K (USD) an acre. Ohio State University is pushing the trend to $90k annually. These are intensive 1-2 acre projects, and in this kind of polycrop horticulture that’s about all one person can manage. A vet with a home loan can afford 1-2 acres in the Peri-urban edges, and go to work; 20k is a good first year, but each year as trees come on line and the systems gains complexity, 10-15% or more produce comes on line. The property can pay itself off in 5-7 years, and then kids education and retirement funding- and occupation- happen right from the lot. So that’s the savvy.

As for wisdom, I'm at risk of being misinterpreted if I speak of Ag without some disclaimers here. First, using the word permaculture in colleges and in reference to academic study is only just now being taken seriously in the USA. Agriculture has been a subject of academic study for 150 or more years, at least since the 1862 Morrill Act created the Land Grant University System. Many permaculturists and a wide cast of peers from other professions now understand that 'Agriculture' is in many ways party to the global destabilization of arable soils, causing erosion, desertification, and other mass wasting. Permaculture, as opposed to Ag, actually uses existing ecological and biological integrity to create solutions, rather than throwing technology and fossil fuels at it, which is the pattern of 'problem solving' agriculture has offered for 15 decades, if not 15 millennia.

Few things are wiser than placing the design tools of permaculture in the hands of vets who will shovel ditches by hand for 10 hours a day in any weather. This is how the first wadi type bioswales I ever encountered were built- by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the SW there are desert oases which are now often mistaken for natural landforms; in fact they were dug by Spanish American War Veterans who entered the corps in the early 1930's; about 25,000 vets were among the first signons for this amazing model of mutual aid. Many state and federal parks are graced with stone and timber work displayed proudly to this day. Those were the transition camps for many vets, where they took their discipline and applied it to learning skills that could serve them in civil employment, whether construction, engineering, or forestry, and where they did good for their communities by working on these projects and themselves.

The CCC didn't teach the holistic design approach we have in Permaculture- in the end, the wadis and natural building and so on that those vets demonstrated such skill in building were the result of following excellent technical plans with excellent materials and methods, but without the greater sense of integrated design found in the permaculture method. Permaculture design has holistic breadth, and it’s time to put that knowledge in the same hands as are motivated to team work that shovel line. Give these folks honest work and in 70 years they well be as well known and respected as the CCC. And they might turn around the trend of farm land losses in this country at the time when we need it more than ever.

In terms of the Vets Cafe, what challenges do you see when you make a “functional farm?”

By functional I mean it will be financially sound, with operations driven income. A lot of projects where vets or people with physical disabilities are trained in some capacity are largely driven by grants and foundation funds. This model is inadequate for training vets to farm; they have to see a farm that makes ends meet in a manner that informs their career. It would be faithless to operate the farm on grants while telling the vets we were teaching them for profit entrepreneurial career skills.

I suspect all our challenges will be quite similar to anyone else who starts a farm. Working the soils into shape suitable for food foresting, keeping animal/pasture production ratios balanced, marketing, running fences, getting guilds dialed in, attracting a solid customer base. Those are expected program challenges- bringing a cadre through a program which gives them these skills is my challenge. The rest I trust to being present, and have faith.

How do you propose to shift the Cafe participants from a war mythos to a farming mythos?

I don't. I only intend to give them tools that may help them examine the stories they tell and that they listen to, and see what happens. My understanding of permaculture design suggests that self organizing communities, rather than a designer mandated ones, are more resilient and productive. I trust that. I feel that if this freedom is allowed, the myths will come of their own accord. And In not sure that farming mythos are the way to go- perhaps gardening is more my style. Jung ruminated that Myth is to culture what dream is to individual; I can’t make myself dream a certain thing a certain way. Dreams just come through me. They are me sitting apart from me, looking in and suggesting from a distance that things may or may not understand- or even need. But I trust that if I live my values, that the myths that come will reflect the sense of freedom intrinsic in living those values.

What program sponsors and funding do you have currently?

Were currently having discussions with two non profits, a land trust, a state agency, and an LLC; so far nothing is hard set, were doing the dance. One of the potential partners, a non-profit business planning outfit for people with disabilities, calls it “the flirtation stage”; it’s very early in the talks, just a few months. We have a long way to go before we are all on the same page, but I think we have had a first go round that is very promising.

We have begun looking at land lease options with PCC Farmland Trust (PCC). I suspect that the site location will inform much in the way of who our partners are and how we will collaborate when this all comes together; I'm putting a sizable chunk of my own money up for infrastructure and looking for the right partners to capitalize up to another @$450K in lease and infrastructure options. I have enough to start a small bit with a few pigs, paddock them through some swale building and pond gleying, establish a few acres of trees, etc.. It would be nice to go large, eventually, but that’s a beauty of the permaculture method: if one understands scales of design, one can make do in a very small parcel. I can only manage 1-2 acres of fully optimized acreage; We'll need an army of vets to run the 40 acres we will likely lease.

PCC has land close to the Orting Soldiers home, which had its own operational farm for 50 years, from the 1880's to 1934. We may step up to provide the vets at the modern Soldiers Home a chance to spend time on our farm working with newly returned vets, and to put fresh, local produce on the plates at the home if all goes well. From there, Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) is right around the corner and we may set up CSA sales to soldiers. The opportunities seem quite promising for such moves at this point; JBLM has a strong commitment to sustainable land use and health oriented supports for soldiers. Who knows how many may explore the proverbial swords to plowshares shift, but we'd have to find other things to make than plows as I'm a no-till advocate myself.

You speak about “when college counselors make assumptions,” about Vets. What are you talking about here?

See the piece I wrote about challenges vets face in institutions of higher learning that discusses this objectively. I’d like to offer a personal story to show where that article came from.

In the 23 years since I received an in-service head injury we've learned so much about the brain. It was known that I had a closed wound head injury (now called a traumatic brain injury, or TBI), but the doctors at the time (1989) didn't understand the long term symptomatology the same way they do today. I was observed for a couple of hours to a day after being knocked unconscious – I don't know how long or what by, it’s not recorded in the “official” record. My memory of it is weak at best. The record contains one note stating “head injury with no sequel”.

Months later I had a complete degenerative psychotic episode. The doctors had no peer reviewed record that informed their work about the long term affects of concussive injury to the head and spine. They may not have had access to my record- I certainly haven't had any success in getting portions of it. What is of record is that my numb feet were diagnosed as tarsal tunnel and my erratic behavior was diagnosed with a psychological disorder- bipolar syndrome- and treated according to their best knowledge at the time. The specific treatment I was given, phenothiazine medications, are now contraindicated for TBI by all associated professions. It failed miserably, hospitalizing me for 3 months, as they didn't understand what was really happening. It was traumatic to say the least, but that’s forgivable: they didn't understand the interactions. I was adrift in uncharted waters. The VA now understands TBI well enough to redress what happened, yet haven't despite the evidence compiled on my behalf by their own medical staff; that’s dissolution; it breaks with their mission and policy. Vets wrestle with this every day, and it is regrettable.

In 2004 I was reviewing my military medical record for a claim update with a doctor, and he asked me if, while I was in the service, I had ever had trouble sleeping, or waking up, or if I had ever visited the doctor for cold or flu like symptoms without congestion or fever- just runny nose and headaches, wet waxy ears, and excess saliva. I showed him the medical reports- I was treated for a flu a few weeks after my head injury, and the doctor noted it was a post nasal drip, no congestion, no fever, no infection. I also had several insomniac episodes and earaches without infection during that time. He told me he it was probable that I suffered a moderate to severe head injury.

My counselors, who did not regard my doctors updates, told me I would not be able to complete undergrad studies without support for Bipolar Disorder, that a Masters Degree was right out and they counseled that the VA should not support it. Despite this I earned an MSA from Washington State, graduating Magna Cum Laude.

Recently a piece of corroborating evidence arrived- I have optical nerve scarring consistent with frontal lobe head injuries. I won’t go blind, but it interferes with vision. To this day I have numb feet, but only last year was it diagnosed by VA clinicians as a degenerative neuropathology resultant from an impact and not tarsal tunnel, a bone deformity. My chiropractor knew that a decade ago. Despite all this, 23 years later, my VA medical benefits claim is still in appeal, my VA counselors insist I have BP and my medical team all hold their hands up and say “Hey, it’s not our fault they don't listen.” The VA Pharmacy won’t fill out my VA Doctors prescriptions for vitamin supplements, omega 3's, B complex, D, etc. which are known to benefit neuropathological injury and disease. But I can get opiates for the pain for free from the VA. I won’t take the opiates, but one VA counselor told me to take the opiates and sell them so I could buy supplements. So this is VA Health care, and colleges need to be aware that their students' success is jeopardized by this leviathan inflexible process.

Tens of thousands of vets are in waiting cues averaging 3-5 years to attain disability benefits. School counselors often assume the VA is taking care of these folks, when the fact is that the VA is underfunded and understaffed, and under pressure to cut costs like all other federal departments. Veterans are the end cycle victims. And the vets may rarely tell school counselors about the troubles with the VA- from our perspective it often only muddies the waters and draws out the frustrating processes. This needs to be resolved before attrition will decrease.

Assumptions that college counselors- and professors- make are often well grounded in best knowledge of the time; we can’t fault history for what it clearly did not know. Counselors and Teachers who say to a student “You have these issues so will be treated this way” are suspect at best and inadequate to the task. The ones who say to a student, and vets in particular “I can see some of the structure here isn't working for you, how can we work together towards your success?”- Those are the teachers and counselors that I developed respect and fondness for and that other students will want to emulate. I know I strive to do this. A good counselor doesn't see a diagnosis or a troubled student, but a chance to expand their ability to connect, respectfully, as I is useful, one heart and mind at a time.

This is the kind of college counselor training I hope will become more prevalent as OEF/OIF vets return, and it's central to our Vets Cafe program. As tens of thousands of vets survive traumatic injuries which may be poorly recorded or even not at all present on the vets record, its time to stop treating disabilities and start serving people. The most dehumanizing thing a doctor can do is treat a person like an illness while ignoring or even obstructing the person seeking wellness who is in front of them. Vets files, more than just about any other sort of medical records, contain bad information that leads to inaccurate or even wildly incorrect assumptions, and the way to avoid this is to connect with a person, vet or otherwise, as a human who has needs, challenges and gifts – it’s a great equalizer, since we all fit that description.

How can permaculture break the cycle of the Vet drop-out? Does this start at the soil itself?

Nationally Veteran drop-out rates are 2-3 times higher than rates of their non-military peers. There are 2.5 million unemployed vets. Some colleges have reported 70% drop out rates among vets. Much of this is likely a result of the undiagnosed and untreated TBI and PTSD issues I mentioned before. Veteran support groups go a long way to mitigating this. Just getting these folks together for weekend ball games and pizza has a huge positive impact; from there they self organize. By this point it’s not just training, its survival; as vets talk with other trusted members of their peer group about their experiences in college, they get support, and direction. They realize they are not alone.

Let’s take a look what the turnover of the “don't ask don't tell” policy illuminates about vets. The homosexual and the heterosexual standing side by side in a mission are mission oriented. So even if there are feelings of awkwardness in that side by side mission oriented experience, when you penalize one group because of their self identity, both will suffer in their ability to achieve the mission. And that means less chance for either to get home safely. It seems to me that straight soldiers I know supported gay soldiers with resolve, and wanted them to be comfortable and able to perform their jobs without fear, because doing otherwise jeopardized the mission. It took a long time to affect that change, because the military is not democratic. Still, this change appeared to me to be soldier driven, and command resisted over reasons I can’t understand. I was in the service before 'Don't Ask Don't Tell', and this mutualism did not exist at all. It’s hard for a tail to wag the dog, but this time it did. I feel it’s a great and proud moment- if 20+ years later than needed.

This points to something really wonderful I think. As we look at these vets who are dis-integrating as they enter academic pursuits, we can say that it is likely that this occurs when vets are not in a guild- which is what it is to not have a team- and when they are not grounded firmly by a mission. So the roots have to be established before the plant or the person can thrive, and the thriving is best done in a companion planting where mutual aid occurs between members. And these soldiers are understanding that functional assembly is not about a monocropped perspective, but a diverse and culturally rich mutualism. This seems exactly like permaculture to me.

One of my permaculture teachers, Skeeter Pilarski, once noted that I was kind of like a plant that could stand the harshest soils and climate, but like that plant I had to have some wicked defense mechanisms that made it hard to get close to me -plants in that environment don't depend on density, but ferocity, to avoid being eaten. I started planting lots of gooseberry after that. Despite its thorns and ability to manage in marginal soils, it is known for the sweetness of its fruit and the uniqueness of it foliage. So I built a guild with the gooseberries, using Siberian pea vines, marjoram, garlic, garden giant mushrooms, yarrow, mullein, marjoram, sage. A gooseberry can do OK in pretty messed up soil. But it doesn't have live in messed up soil. And given the chance, and some good ground, vets will organize into functional guilds- not necessarily vet exclusive ones, though a primary function of the Vets Cafe is veteran's mutual aid. And in attaining that, veterans and their communities will do all do better.

Are there many vets that now distance themselves from their war-making country and from other vets? Is there a built-in resistance to celebrate this killing ethic?

Most veterans didn't sign up with a desire to go to war. They signed up because they came from families or communities where there was limited security, what we call 'limits to upward mobility' though thats a misnomer, as “upward mobility” is a way to ignore broken cultural patterns that leading to a desire for escape. Our society is full of misleading memes on the sources and use of wealth, and that is just as true in the green sustainable job markets as it is in Monsantoland and the Cocapopcolapse. It’s like Salvador Disney, a trusted name in eugenics, pained this something “green” so it must be “sustainable”. So these memes are tired. Prevailing cultural support for joining the Service is based on misguided notions of improving ones personal and familial circumstance, not an urge to kill or celebration of death.

I don't know any vets who celebrate a killing ethic. It is my considered observation that this kind of perspective about veterans is one that is groomed by sensationalist media coverage on one hand and lack of connection to veteran communities on the other; Neither of these items, however, can be faulted against PlanetShifter Willi Paul, who dogged me for 6 months about giving this interview. Thank you for your persistence and dedication to a greater good. I get your message, Willi. In Service. Thank you.

Memorial and Veterans Day are marked with sorrow and honoring. These are memorials, they are time to reflect. The fly overs made by antique aircraft are highly symbolic gestures, and are not celebrations. They are acknowledgements of what has been lost, and a reckoning of what we actually gained for our loss, which many times was not what we had hoped or wanted. The fly overs are a remembrance for some of the salvation combat vets felt as they were airlifted from firefights or saved just in time by bombardiers who took out sappers or advancing enemy lines. It’s not a celebration of the death of those on the other sides of the line, but reckoning that the cost of going was great, and the cost of not going is unknown. Acknowledging it makes it less likely to happen again, and forgetting it happened makes it more likely.

Until they were drafted, Vietnam did not exist in the US classroom or televisions. These drafted kids hadn't even heard of Vietnam in 1963 and '64, nor would they understand that large monkeys, and perhaps orangutan and mystical looking deer lived there and they wrote home of cavemen like rock-apes and unicorns. It was a very different time. They were less knowledgeable about the world in many ways than a 10 year old today, who has heard of Vietnam, may know where it is on a map, and that it has a very delicious and unique cuisine. They might even know that there are no unicorns in Vietnam. It was a very different world in 1966.

These men and women, at the time barely more than kids, were drafted, for almost none of them wanted to go to Vietnam. They were plucked before they were ripe, and yet had all expectation it was the right thing to do, straight from the farm, or conservatory, or physics lab, and sent to Hell. They were wounded despite not wanting to be there, had to kill people they had no personal beef with, and they returned after that horrible experience to harassment and neglect. Yet without Vietnam vets, those who shunned them would never have had the pleasure of sitting down to a bowl of vegetarian Pho or amazing Lemongrass soup. The work we do with bamboo and aquaculture would be much less advanced.

Vietnam Veterans, who were spat on, rebuked en mass after being drafted, had every right as a group of peers to say “fuck all” to government and society. The draft was basically a conscription, practically a kidnapping. They were made to go to war, and then crapped on when they returned. Why we ended up with so few Rambo style vigilantes, but instead got a series of increasing less relevant movies is something sociologists should be asking. It’s very interesting that so much more ill could have come of Vietnam and did not.

The fairly stable international relations we have now with SE Asia are largely the work of concerned and compassionate vets. Those protesting the war and spitting on vets had less to do with reparations and healing relations made in the wake of political and trade driven invasion agendas that usurped a rational strategic and national defense action. The solid peacemaking work done in the 80's and 90's was done by veterans like Danaan Parry, a US Coast Guard pilot who started PeaceTrees Vietnam, and went to work removing thousands of mines from the Vietnamese countryside while planting trees to stabilize soil and provide food, textiles and habitat.

Vietnam Vets have turned out en mass to support today’s returning soldiers even while they question the methods and even the legitimacy of the wars which our current administration is slowly but at long last drawing down. My hat is off to these guys, especially the ones who look into the dark and remain alighted- were getting support from Vietnam Vets with practices of loving kindness meditation, conservation education backgrounds, permaculture advocates, community pea patch coordinators, off grid lifestyle enthusiasts and so on. And I'm proud of the 500 leather clad bikers who ride to the Capitol of the State of Washington a few times a year, joining Toys for Tots in the winter and on Memorial Day coming in for the Thunder Run. Their unswerving devotion to service in on behalf of today’s returning Veterans is not something they owe anyone. It’s a straight up gift economy. They are still showing up, despite every right to say “fuck it” and giving more and better than they got. That’s generosity. And so the Older vets step in to care for these new vets. They make sure to not let a “fuck off” attitude become a habit, and then a problem. So the new growth is sheltered and nurtured by the old growth. Its succession planning. It’s what the Vets Cafe project is about at the core as well.

You asked “ Are there many vets that now distance themselves from their war-making country and from other vets? ” The safest place to be when facing violence is close to it. Holding it tenderly. A step back and that fist has room to move and strike you, a step further and there’s room for a gun, further than that, artillery, and further than that its missiles and atom bombs. There is no safety in distancing oneself from such impulses to conflict. We must stay close. When we are face to face, eye to eye, we may disagree, but disagreeing civilly is a better hell than killing each other and the planet besides. So vets learn to stay close. We write our senators, we organize, we advocate for health-care and education supports for vets and dependents, constantly support reason and diplomacy. If we fail in that more will perish. And we mourn the loss of lives- all of us for our peers and many, I among them, mourn all those who died, combatant or civilian, regardless of nation or belief. A warrior is not bellicose and does not celebrate death. I also mourn the wasted soils; this hit me hard when I look at footage of combat zones, the frightening loss of ecosystems integrity. To me, personally, these are also relevant sorrows.

Are there groups with similar illnesses like the Vets? What other groups have given you insight into the Veterans condition and challenges?

I don't know if I would refer to it as illness, but I think I understand you. I grew up near the Chehalis Tribal Lands, in SW Washington and spent many summers there with friends from the tribe. Most people are at least vaguely aware of the cultural and class divides between First Peoples Tribes and contemporary (non-tribal) culture. As a social group, the Chehalis are a bit unique, and in many ways not representative of national tribal norms, but then, no tribe can be formed against other tribes: they are all sovereign peoples, with hundreds of different languages, customs, identities.

When these diverse peoples were intentionally set upon with small pox, tuberculosis, and cavalry units, some survivors saw 80-90% of their tribal populations die. Old men, women and children had to go to reservation, fight or run, regardless of the context of their culture- some were warrior-hunter tribes, like the Sioux of the Dakotas, and so challenged the US cavalry often and sometimes quite effectively. Some were agrarian gatherers, like the Kalapuya of Oregon's Willamette valley. They were often rounded up, shipped to lousy reservations where a rock-flea would starve but tuberculosis had an edge. The wounding of these sovereign people's social order and cultural being is one that continued, and in many ways continues to this day. Witnesses to genocide, the cultural fragmentation of forced relocation, the constant state of alert and danger, not to forget racial slurs, employment and collegiate prejudice, all of which lead to PTSD that became intergenerational by extension of familial and cultural dysfunction... this was done by the same Army I served with. The longer I am a veteran the more complex it becomes, and the more I am aware that my choices of service, mission and team are important if I am to experience a sense of integrity in my work.

So coming to know some of the history of my friends with the Chehalis tribe, I also came into contact with the story of how they became cousins to the Kalama, a Hawaiian native family, through marriages in the Nisqually Tribe. I learned about the high amount of prejudice that was shown towards Native Americans and Pacific Islanders by the US Military Command during Korea, Vietnam, and even later. These tribal members were drafted, told they would be national heroes, restoring tribal honor and so on. Then they were given the most horrifying missions... Their tribal status seems to have been leveraged by white commanders who figured that if these tribal boys died, it was somehow better than a white boy from the burbs. I suspect that African Americans had the same kind of job placement 'opportunities' in Vietnam. Its one of the things that we got but didn't plan for, a thing that we 'won' in the Civil War, and didn't want, and are still trying to redress 150 years later.

So I learned a lot, not only about how to cook salmon, and the history of peoples I had not known, but deeper stuff, about how despite all this potential for being broken, a family can live, even thrive, and have a healthy and wonderful and loving home. Quite a few of these local tribal and Hawaiian vets are as stout and rock firm as humans come. Coming from a home that was not that way, and knowing that they did also, it has been a profound experience to watch and learn and be nourished by their patience, forgivingness, and unconditional love. My uncles and aunties made constant the choice to care for what they could while they could, whether their children, their homes, their gardens, and so on, because it was the best way to face the challenges- to make important choices with a deep counsel of check in and -not always sweet, and quite often difficult- expressions of love. Permaculture is practical. Larry Korn pointed out to me that Bill Mollison didn't mention Love once in the Designer's Manual. Don't rely on one element for all needed functions is discussed. Words to the wise. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these things, Willi, it’s been a pleasure.

* * * * * * *

Deston’s Bio -

Deston has lived and worked on several small family farms on the west coast and WOOFed in Australia. Serving small farm projects as Principal of Abundance Consulting for 12 years, he earned his Master’s Degree in Agriculture from Washington State University('07), and a BA/BS in Ecological Science and Design from The Evergreen State College('96). He took his PDC in 2003 with Brock Doleman and Penny Livingston, and his Permaculture Teacher's Training in 2004 with Jude Hobbs and Tom Ward. He served in the US Army from '88-'90. He is currently working with partnering groups to develop the Vets Cafe educational program for Veterans interested in Conservation, Agriculture, Forestry and Ecology. To support or inquire about how to get involved in the Vets Cafe, please contact him by email.

Connections –

Deston Denniston, M.S., C.P.I. Principal
Abundance Consulting LLC
abundancepc at gmail.com
Web: http://www.abundancepermaculture.com/
LI: http://www.linkedin.com/in/abundancepermaculture

Share with: Share