Farm helps heal vets

@CNNMoney April 5, 2012: 8:19 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Former Army Sergeant Adam Burke's struggle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder took him out of the monotony of a rehab office and into the fresh air of a farm.

In 2009, the Purple Heart recipient launched Veterans Farm in Florida, an unconventional setting where veterans can heal from physical and mental injuries through "horticulture therapy."

Working on the farm isn't unlike what soldiers experience on deployment, he said.

"Vets need structure in life. It's inbred in them," said Burke, 34. At the farm, vets get up at 7 a.m. Each vet has a specific task assigned to them on a task board that has to be completed that day.

Tasks include planting fruits and vegetables, taking care of chickens and other farm animals, and even building a greenhouse.

Organic blueberries are grown in abundance and are a specialty of Burke's farm in Jacksonville, Fla. Blueberry bushes are planted on elevated beds to make them accessible to wheelchair-bound vets during harvest time.

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Burke also has his vets go to local farmers' markets and other stores to sell the produce that they have grown.

This helps them improve their socialization skills with the public, and it brings in much-needed revenue to his nonprofit initiative, he said.

Burke has eight people in his six-month program. To get accepted, applicants must be post- 9/11 vets with two years of service. They must have an injury or disability sustained while in the line of duty that prevents further military service. And they also have to be alcohol- and drug-free.

Burke conducts extensive background checks on everyone who applies.

Once accepted, vets commit to working on the farm for six months, for a maximum of 600 hours. Each vet gets a $1,000 monthly stipend.

Frank Wade counts his blessings that he's enrolled in Burke's program in Jacksonville.

"I've been here over a month now and love it," he said. "When I'm working with plants and animals, I forget about my stress and issues with my ex-wife."

Wade, 30, retired from the Army in 2008 after seven years of service and two overseas deployments. That same year he changed jobs 12 times. "I would get frustrated, aggravated and walk out," he said.

While he was enrolled in culinary school in 2011, he became verbally aggressive with a teacher.

Already diagnosed with PTSD, Wade's local Veterans Affairs' counselor referred him to Veterans Farm last year. "Initially I blew it off," he said. But then he changed his mind and went. After a while, he decided to stay.

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Wade said that he's starting to get off his PTSD medication. "I'll never be cured of PTSD, but the program is helping me manage it and become a productive individual," he said.

So far, the program has a 75% completion record compared to a 25% one for the bigger VA-based rehab programs, he said.

Dr. Daniel Weiss, a psychologist, said Burke's program could be helpful in the healing process for vets.

"Being around nature and farming can be restorative for vets," said Weiss, who studies PTSD. "The main elements of the program seem reasonable as long as it has a safety net built into it."

Burke said there is no medical staff on his farm, but all of the veterans in the program are under their doctors' care.

It's not surprising that Burke was inspired to create a rehabilitation program that focused on farm work. He grew up on a farm. He also saw the benefits of farm work during his recovery from PTSD, which he suffered after surviving a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004.

In early 2009, he spoke to a doctor about developing the program. Later that year, Veterans Farm was up and running.

The farm initially sat on a two-and-a-half-acre patch on Burke's family's farm in Webster, Fla. He used his degree in business marketing to actively market the concept and solicit sponsors and donations.

As word quickly spread, veteran charities took note -- particularly Work Vessels for Veterans (WVFV). The organization, which has helped more than 500 returning vets find jobs, donated five acres of land in Jacksonville.

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Burke opened his second Veterans Farm there in 2010. WVFV recently donated another six-and-a-half acres so it could expand.

Burke, who also operates a health care staffing company, doesn't take any income from the farms. All the money raised through produce sales and donations is reinvested and provides the monthly stipend to enrollees.

John Niekrash, chairman of WVFV, said Veterans Farm is "one of the most unique concepts I've seen."

It stands out because the program combines three important aspects -- healing, nature and commerce, he said.

Wade wants to have his own beef cattle farm where he can carry forward Burke's mission by hiring other wounded vets.

"Healing starts when you think about others and forget about your own pain," said Burke. "I'm teaching these guys to suck it up and drive on." To top of page

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