Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Sarah Alexander (left; MOFGA’s executive director) introducing Anne Devin. English photo
Sarah Alexander (left; MOFGA’s executive director) introducing Anne Devin. English photo
 

United We Grow: Veterans in Agriculture

Sunday, September 22, 2019 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine

After 27 years on active duty as a U.S. Marine Corps officer, Anne Devin transitioned to full-time farming in 2016 with the vision of replicating an agricultural environment that honors and supports transitioning veterans. She owns and operates Chase Stream Farm with her husband, Tim. She is also the veteran outreach coordinator for Maine AgrAbility and MOFGA. Her keynote address at MOFGA’s 2019 Common Ground Country Fair appears below (edited for length) and on MOFGA’s YouTube channel.

 


Devin with some of the veterans who attended her keynote speech. English photo
Devin with some of the veterans who attended her keynote speech. English photo
 

Good morning, everyone. Ooh Rah! That’s Marinespeak for “Good Morning.” It’s also a catch-all utterance for “hello, good afternoon, good evening, that’s awesome, I’m amazed, heck yeah, see ya later.” It began as a battle cry to inspire others to action. So, let me hear you speak Marine – OOO RAH!

This is my third year living in Maine and attending the Common Ground Country Fair. I enjoy it more and more every year as I get a feel for where everything is and how to navigate the many alleys and cool shopping.

Thank you to the Fair organizers and thank you for being here to hear my story. My goal is to tell a few sea stories as a small representation of one veteran’s path to farming, and leave you with some thoughts about how you can support your local veteran farmer.

Today’s Veterans

Many of you are familiar with the military eras in which we’ve traveled through history. Small wars, big wars, wars on our own soil and wars where our sons and daughters have traveled to foreign lands; war is part of our past, present, and unfortunately likely our future.

About one in five veterans alive today served on active duty after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. An estimated 4.3 million service members have transitioned out of the military since 2003. We represent a new generation of service members whose collective experiences – from deployment to combat to the transition back to civilian life – differ markedly from those who served in previous eras.

I was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from college in 1989. I was happy to earn a slot in the intelligence field in which I served for 27 years, during which I suffered torn ligaments and broken bones, traveled to 17 countries, learned two additional languages and served in three combat zones. I suffered a failed marriage and managed to raise two sons. I thrived and looked forward to serving in combat environments, I shrugged off chauvinistic micro-inequities, and was fortunate to work with some of the finest men and women in our country.

In doing so, I developed an immense sense of duty and obligation to my country and community. I served with the great trifecta: General Jim Mattis, General Joe Dunford and General John Kelly in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.

A lot of research shows that our personalities are defined as young children, and I find that to be true. Most military members join at 18, 19, 20 years of age. There has to be something instilled within them to make them step up to the plate and say yes to their country.

My time in the military is filled with unique personal events that helped form my character. Like during the winter of 1997 when I was stationed in Seoul, South Korea, as an East Asian foreign area officer. My duties took me  to the Russian Far East with Army Captain David Shin – two weeks of travel along a fascinating path from Vladivostok to Blagoveschchensk, Russia, via planes, trains and automobiles. Capt. Shin and I spoke Korean and English. Our interpreter spoke Korean and Russian – not very good Russian as it turned out. In 1997 Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia, the Soviet Union had collapsed just six years before, the Russian states were suffering from hyperinflation and were on the eve of their major financial crisis of 1998. Government workers went unpaid for months. I didn’t witness the Soviet era breadlines, but times were tough.

Times were so tough for the military that young Russian soldiers commonly took jobs as taxi drivers, using military vehicles, to make extra money. On one evening in Blagoveschensk, our party of three had to catch a train. It was about 10 p.m. and our train was leaving at midnight. It was December, -40 degrees, and Blagoveschensk is in Siberia, so we decided to take a ride. Well, Sgt. Dmitri got himself lost, our Korean-to-Russian translator was mutilating both languages, and the driver decided to kick us out of his vehicle – nowhere near the house we were visiting with North Korean defectors, nor the train station. That night, my intelligence background served me no good. Captain Shin, however, the Ranger-qualified army infantryman, saved the day. As we were standing in the middle of a deserted and frozen street, in the black of night, he looked up and seemingly sniffed the air and took off running. The translator and I had no choice but to follow. We made it safely to our staging area and caught our train. Dosvedanya to Russia at that time.

Or in 2004 when I was flying under cover of darkness from Kuwait into Iraq on a C-130 as part of the advance party to set up an analytical fusion center in Ramadi, Iraq. I was traveling with one of my lead analysts and a few communications Marines. We had spent a week waiting in Kuwait and were anxious to get into Iraq to begin our turnover with the Army Intelligence Unit there as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The flight is only about an hour between Kuwait and Baghdad. Our flight was full with gear and service members and contractors making their way into Iraq. As we approached Baghdad’s airspace, our plane banked hard, and an hour later we were back in Kuwait – but not before my lead analyst fouled his helmet that had been sitting in his lap with the contents of his nervous stomach, which triggered a chain reaction from military contractors sitting across from us. I had already had two children and had become immune to most forms of vomit and poop. We had apparently been fired at by surface-to-air missiles, which fortunately missed their target due to keen piloting skills, but were enough to make us return to try another day. Shukran jazeelan to that.

Saying Yes

I have hundreds of stories. I don’t tell them much, though. My husband is also a retired Marine, and frankly we kind of roll our eyes at each other when we feel a sea story coming on. He was a pilot, so he uses his hands a lot when he tells his stories. I spent most of my career in front of a computer or briefing off of PowerPoint presentations, so I tend to talk in bulletized format. Despite our differences we share one singular event that we also share with every other veteran who has worn the uniform since we became an all-volunteer force in 1973 – we all said “yes.”

We said yes to serving our country, to leaving our families, to missing births, birthdays, weddings, funerals and holidays. We said yes to putting ourselves in harm’s way in foreign lands.

And we said yes to each other. Yes, I’ve got your back. Yes, I’ll make sure this letter gets to your family if you don’t make it. Yes, I’ll escort your broken body back home and make sure everyone knows that you died with honor. Yes, I will remember you and keep telling your story.

I remember Corporal Salem Bachar, a young, bright-eyed intelligence analyst who deployed with my unit to Al Anbar, Iraq, in 2006, his second deployment to Iraq. Cpl. Bachar spoke English, Spanish and Arabic; could play several musical instruments; was on the wrestling and track teams in high school; studied physics; and  was a very good amateur magician and a decent and smart young man with a full life ahead of him. He married his longtime sweetheart 12 days before he deployed to Iraq and was killed by enemy action just three months later. I had the burden and honor of serving as his casualty assistance officer, notifying his family of his untimely death and being with them through their early days and weeks of heart-wrenching grief as they prepared for his funeral and burial. I said yes to him. Yes, I’ll let your mother insult me and disparage the Marine Corps in her grief and yell and scream at everybody she comes in contact with who had anything to do with the uniform that put you in harm’s way. Yes, I will hold your father as he sobs with uncontrollable grief. I will also honor you and make sure your story is never forgotten. He was 20 years old. He said yes.

Finding the Next Yes

How do those of us who did come home, with injuries or uninjured, honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice? And how do we find our next yes? We can best honor our fallen brothers and sisters by living our best lives possible, fully and deliberately. They died defending the very freedoms that our country holds so dear. Despite the political environment, we still have the best country in the world. These freedoms have been paid for in blood, sweat and tears by those veterans who sit next to you. It is our duty to not waste their sacrifice.

Those of us who do come home are often much different than when we left. Loss of limb, traumatic brain injuries, stress, anxiety, depression, uncontrollable rage, the list goes on. It’s not pretty, it’s heartbreaking, it’s a shame, it’s life.

I have had the great privilege of working with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension AgrAbility program, which provides no-fee resources to help people of any disability work through challenges that may restrict their ability to succeed in their farming, gardening, fishing, logging work. I have been working with them part-time as the veteran outreach coordinator, and in my short time have met some amazing, hard charging, dedicated veterans who just want to farm!

To understand how agriculture fits for many veterans, you have to understand some of the traits inoculated into us like a nice shiitake mushroom spore on a freshly cut oak log. From boot camp or officer training school until you leave the service, your days and nights surround you with opportunities to excel or fail. You cannot escape experiences that will hone several characteristics, like discipline. You might think our military standards that cover pretty much every aspect of your life – your hair length, body fat standards, shaving standards, the length of your skirt, physical fitness standards, etc. – may be superfluous, exhaustive and potentially harassing, but it’s all practice for the attention to detail and discipline that can be the difference between winning or losing on the battlefield. Every elite sports team knows this, and on the battlefield you want to be part of an elite fighting force.

And like independence. Contrary to common misperception, discipline does not make us a bunch of robots. The U.S. military prides itself on “mission type orders” and “commander’s intent.” That means I give an order to somebody who follows it to meet that result. I don’t tell them how to build the clock; I just want to know what time it is. We train all of our military members to be able to think on their own and hopefully give them the resources so that they can carry out that mission successfully.

There is a negative component to that. Independence can make a tendency to do something alone. That independence can’t be in lieu of seeking help and letting others help you. That’s been the biggest challenge with our veteran community.

Military members will be confident, self-assured; confident enough to embark upon a business when they have no business skills.

They are selfless. Several veterans I work with labor over charging what their product is worth. They would rather give it away than charge a fair price. Even my husband and I – there are times when I’ve paid you to eat our food.

They multitask. When Tim and I started farming in 2016, we were going to do value-added, syrup, bees, egg layers, meat birds, lamb, organic fruit and vegetables. We can do a few of those but not all. A little time and experience helps.

They are results-oriented. Typically a military member moves and/or changes jobs every three years. The first six months you’re just learning your job. Then for the next two and a half years, you feel compelled to have some results. If you haven’t made your unit a better place by then, you’ve failed. Many veterans come out with that mentality. We can look forward about three years and then have to have something accomplished.

Do these characteristics sound like traits that would help in running a farm or business? The Pew Research Center recently researched military veterans and found overall that combat experiences strengthened them personally, but also made the transition back to civilian life difficult. Asked about their experiences in the first few years after leaving the military, combat veterans are less likely than those who didn’t serve in combat to say they frequently felt optimistic about their future, and they are more likely to say they didn’t get the respect they deserved, they struggled with the lack of structure in civilian life, and they felt disconnected from family or friends.

At the same time, those who served in combat report positive impacts. Majorities say their experiences in combat made them feel closer to those who served alongside them, showed them that they were stronger than they thought they were and changed their priorities about what was important in their life.

When my husband and I decided to move to Maine to start farming after leaving the military, we relied on our years of adaptability, persistence and flexibility training in the Marine Corps, but we were naïve to the reality of our inexperience as actual farmers. YouTube videos and Johnny’s [Selected Seeds] growing library will only get you so far. Bit by bit we are stumbling through aches and pains, heartbreak and marital discord, and strained finances. Having the courage to ask for help has been one of our biggest struggles, but taking advantage of MOFGA and Cooperative Extension classes, Maine Farmland Trust, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Beginning Farmers Resource Network is helping us put our head on straight.

Working in agriculture has provided us the perfect environment to establish our own battle rhythm and spend time with our family; experiment with innovation, value added; and manage our personal interactions (Tim doesn’t like crowds; I’m a bit of an extrovert and love doing the farmers’ market). It’s given us a purpose – and I think that’s one thing veterans miss when they leave the military.

Next Steps

As we’ve navigated our own choppy waters, pieces are falling into place. Our original vision was to have Chase Stream Farm be a platform for a teaching farm; to have veterans as they transition out of the military live on the farm, and we would put them through a training so that they could work on farms or own an agricultural business. We need facilities for the veterans to live in.

The Veterans Affairs is willing to work with us, along with Maine AgrAbility, to develop a training curriculum for veterans, using the existing 48 community garden beds on the Togus Campus in Augusta. We plan to start these classes in November, everything from soil health to developing a business plan.

This fall we’ll have a full-day symposium dedicated to veterans interested in agriculture. In my work with AgrAbility and partnering with the United Farmer Veterans of Maine, we found that veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or brain injury have common challenges when running a farm business. For people who have experienced trauma, planning for the future can be a challenge. Day-to-day survival and living is loud and upfront. If you have a hard time seeing yourself surviving into the future, there is little motivation to plan for the future. That trauma determines how we work with veterans, step by step, and make resources available to them.

This October 26 symposium is one small effort to support veterans as they navigate their way to their next “yes.” Business mentors from SCORE and the Small Business Association will offer one-on-one sessions with veterans and their partners to talk about any aspect of their business and hopefully establish a long-term relationship with the mentor walking alongside them as they build their own business. MOFGA is providing a financial planning workshop that will incorporate deliberate planning around disability payments. The afternoon will consist of assistive technology training and applications to address mental and physical fatigue; yoga basic training for farmers; a veteran-specific resource fair and more.

What can you do? Befriend a vet, mentor a vet, hire a vet, buy from a vet.

If you own a farm, consider hiring a vet. They need the apprenticeships. Vocational rehab can fund programs at no cost to the farmer.

Business mentors: Share your knowledge with a vet; host a gathering. Through the United Veteran Farmers of Maine I know of at least 210 veterans in Maine who are interested in farming or have started their own farming business. We’re trying to help veterans find their way to their next yes.