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A journey from pain to purpose: A local veteran finds peace on a farm

Air Force veteran Nathan Bush works on the grounds of EquiCenter's farm in Mendon.
Lindsay France/Cornell University
Air Force veteran Nathan Bush works on the grounds of EquiCenter's farm in Mendon.

On this Veterans Day, a local veteran is reflecting on his long, difficult journey back to civilian life and the ultimate success he found thanks to a program in Mendon.

Nathan Bush of Honeoeye Falls served in the Air Force for ten years. He was never deployed in a combat zone, but did sustain severe injuries in his service as a vehicle operator.

Staff sergeant Bush had compression fractures in his spine, a collapsed lung, and a severe immune reaction to vaccinations he had received.

And that was just the physical side of things.  There were also mental and emotional struggles associated with leaving military service.

"There's a really high rate of veteran suicide and I think my experience, having contemplated that myself, is that it was really just feeling alone and disconnected," he said.

When Bush was forced to leave military service because in 2005, he said his injuries prevented him from securing a civilian job with the skills he learned driving trucks and operating equipment.  He said he felt “unmoored and isolated.”

But he eventually found a new purpose. Bush discovered the Veteran Farm and Wellness Program at EquiCenter in Mendon, a nonprofit serving veterans, people with disabilities, and at-risk youth.

He began participating in a therapeutic farming program. Working in a garden helped with his physical pain. "It's like a form of yoga,” Bush explained. “You still have to do it, but you can work at your own pace, stress, and work smarter and not harder."

And he also reconnected with other veterans as they shared a common goal.

"Whether it's with the earth, by farming and growing a seed and caring for it from seedling all the way through harvest.  We all go together into the kitchen and we have a chef leads us through a beautiful recipe that we prepare with through this food we created."

Within six months, Bush said he was able to wean himself off all the medications he was taking for his injuries.  He now coordinates EquiCenter's veterans outreach efforts.

"There's this feeling of wellbeing, gratification, and purpose, and service,” he described. “All of that kind of comes together.”

The Farm and Wellness Program is part of the Veterans Administration’s whole health care initiative. It currently operates at ten sites around the country, including EquiCenter.

"They are our poster child across the state right now,” said Dean Koyanagi, program manager for Cornell University’s Farm Ops program, which partially funds the veteran effort. “They have the full breadth of support and resources available because of the extension in the area, because of other farms that have supported them, farm mentors, job placement."

The success of the program is measured by the self-reporting of individual participants, Koyanagi explained.  The perspective for that varies depending on whether the veteran is there for therapeutic or vocational purposes.

“Are they reducing their medication, are they less stressed, is their blood pressure going down? Others who are working through career development may be finding that their skills, say with engine mechanics that they learned in the military, is applicable to farm equipment."

The Department of Veterans Affairs, EquiCenter, and Cornell’s Farm Ops are contemplating a collaboration to replicate the program throughout the region and perhaps nationwide.

Farm Ops is funded through the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. The current grant for the veterans program expires in June 2019.  On the VA side, Koyanagi said funding for the initiative ends three months later.

He hopes success stories like Nathan Bush’s lead to more investment in and expansion of the idea.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.