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How one Georgia veteran found healing in farming

Jake Cook, Georgia Public Broadcasting

Jon Jackson remembers the time he spent in combat.

“There was always an enemy, improvised explosive devices would destroy tanks, grenades, RPGs, gunfire going on. And, when you train, it's just, 'all right, let’s rock and roll.' And it's, as long as you can hear bullets going over your head, then you're good."

Jackson came home from war with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, feeling numb and disconnected. The conventional ways of healing didn’t work for him, and eventually he became so distressed he wanted to take his life. Instead, he thought about what would make him happy, bought land in middle Georgia and started farming.

Jackson and Rob Collins have never met, but Collins was a gunner on a Humvee just like Jackson. When Collins came home from Iraq he went to Kennesaw State University, and then the University of Georgia for a master’s in social work. Now he teaches about resilience for Chris 180, a Dekalb County nonprofit.

Emotional numbness makes sense in combat, he says.

"Oftentimes when you look at a behavior of somebody that has experienced significant trauma, you can kind of trace it back to an environment where that would be successful. And you really think about emotional numbness and that would be successful in combat. I did the same thing. In our long patrols, you would be afraid that you would die or be killed or, have someone you cared about killed as well. So you have to have that kind of emotional numbness just to be able to do your job.”

For Jackson, overcoming that numbness and reconnecting with his family began after he and his wife saved a lamb.

"Me and my wife we had a lamb that almost had that was dying because it had bloat. It was at night, we're sitting there grabbing olive oil and shoving it down his throat. And we're massaging it, it's burping. And then all of a sudden it's alive now. And it's something that me and her did together and was like, wow, these connections started forming. And I found myself wanting to be around my family a whole lot more."

Credit Allison Salerno

In 2014, Jackson created a nonprofit with 20 acre Comfort Farms as its first venture. Veterans in immediate crisis work for days or weeks while they wait for treatment with the Veterans Administration.

He recalls his first winter on the farm and how he realized he couldn’t - and didn’t need to - control everything in order to be okay.

"There was a time where, it was extremely cold and I’ d gone to the farm and I just wanted to feed pigs, feed the animals, go work in a greenhouse, because I had my list. So, I go in, I'm riding up to the farm, and I see nothing but water spouts and freezing water spigots everywhere because hoses have busted and there's just an ice river flowing, Just water, going all down the driveway. And I realized that everything that I wanted to do that day could not be done that day. And it forced me to just say, 'well, that's what I was going to do. I can't do that now. This is what I need to do.' But, what it forced me to do was understand that I have to be flexible and not only do I have to be flexible and bend with the wind, I also need to understand that not everything is going to happen the way that I want it to. So, it was a hard, hard, hard, hard, hard thing to do and adjust and adjust to.”

The Saturday I visited, Jon and his wife had friends over. Many of the men were combat veterans also scarred by war - people who have found meaning and purpose in farming. They were roasting a pig one of them had raised on another Georgia farm. Jon talked to me about his day:

I sat up on the top of the hill, over our sweat lodge this morning with probably about 20 of our closest friends who we work with all year, many of them vets. And we had quiet time just listening to every single bird. So the amplifying of every single bird that was there, that you would not even hear if we're just having a conversation with one another, being able to sit in silence, being able to unthink from people who have a problem, shutting it off is huge. And the only way that we can do that is through nature, you know, and just, and just be in the moment. That's it. Just be.”

The fields of okra and corn that Jackson works on his farm outside Milledgeville are thousands of miles away from the battlefields of iraq and Afghanistan, but the trauma he brought home from overseas is still all too close to home. But Jackson, like the veterans he helps, hopes that forging a new connection with the land will make his PTSD as remote as the battlefields he left behind years ago.

Credit Allison Salerno
Rob Collins

Rob Collins, LCSW, is acting director of training and education for Chris 180, a non-profit in Atlanta doing work treating trauma in Georgia. He is also a combat veteran, having served a tour in Baghdad, Iraq with the U.S. Army. Collins returned to school after war, earning an undergraduate degree from Kennesaw State University and a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Georgia.

Collins sat down with reporter-producer Allison Salerno to help listeners understand both Jon Jackson’s trauma and his own. This is a longer excerpt from that conversation, in which Collins shares his own combat experience, helps listeners understand veteran’s combat experiences from a psychological perspective and offers advice to people whose loved ones have experienced significant trauma, whether abroad in war or at home in their personal lives.

More from Rob Collins.

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time for free and confidential help if you or your loved ones are struggling with emotional distress, including thoughts of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States in both Spanish and English.