Hope Grows Here
October 16, 2011
Burke at his farm.
Seven years ago, he was an infantryman in Iraq, at the tail end of a deployment that had felt like a 16-month descent through the circles of hell. “Two weeks before I was due to go home in May 2004, my unit was running a mission in the Sunni Triangle,” Burke says. “As we crossed a street, one of my guys got shot. I stepped out to pull him to cover, and the enemy started firing.”
Shrapnel tore into his head and legs. (Burke was later awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.) “I was lying in the street,” he recalls. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if you get me home to see my family at least one more time, I promise that I’ll make my life worth saving.’ ”
Recovering in the U.S. with the help of Michele, his wife of nine years, the onetime star athlete had trouble staying on his feet when he walked because of a ruptured eardrum. He was also gripped by intense anxiety. Doctors diagnosed Burke with an alphabet soup of problems, including TBI (traumatic brain injury), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and hypertension. He and Michele traveled, and he spent “a couple years feeling sorry for myself” before finding his way to his parents’ farm in Webster, Fla.—ironically the very place he’d sought to escape when he joined the army at age 17. His family gave him a two-and-a-half-acre plot, and Burke used his disability benefits to buy blueberry bushes and irrigation equipment. He and Michele moved into a 32-foot trailer.
As Burke spent his days working in the sunshine, he noticed that his hand-eye coordination and his cognitive functions, which had been impaired due to his injuries, steadily improved. After a year and a half, he was able to put aside his cane. One day he was struck by an idea: Since farming had benefited him physically and mentally, perhaps it could help other soldiers, too.
He also thought it could address another problem faced by returning members of the military: unemployment. The jobless rate for the most recent vets is nearly 10 percent. And farming’s challenging lifestyle is actually a good fit for former troops. Burke notes, “It takes a lot of discipline to get up at five in the morning and work hard, but soldiers are used to it.”
He relied on word of mouth to publicize his farm, and within four months, veterans—some of them disabled—began finding their way there. When Burke saw that the men in wheelchairs were unable to pick berries from bushes at ground level, he put plants in tall pots they could reach. “They’re handicapped-access berries!” Burke declares.
By spring 2010, Burke realized he needed more land. With funds from the nonprofit Work Vessels for Veterans, which assists former service members in launching their own businesses, he acquired eight acres in Florida.
Today, on weekends at the new farm, you can find veterans of conflicts ranging from the Korean War to the war in Iraq busy tending the soil. The camaraderie at the farm has been a source of comfort for returning soldiers trying to leave bad memories behind. Shaun Valdivia, a 26-year-old marine, came back from Afghanistan with TBI and PTSD—and a lot of guilt. “Why was I left relatively unscathed while my friends died or got seriously hurt?” he wondered. Valdivia, who felt isolated from civilian friends because of his combat experiences, was relieved to meet other recent vets at Burke’s farm. “It’s helped so much to get things off my chest.”
Under the bright Florida sun, Burke climbs onto a tractor and pulls a plow across a field. Once he risked his life to pull a comrade out of the line of fire. Today, he’s leading some of his fellow soldiers to a different kind of sanctuary.
TWO WAYS TO HELP
Farmer-Veteran Coalition and Work Vessels for Veterans are nonprofit groups that strive to bring former service members into farming.