Makina Contact: A Veteran-Led Green Care Movement Could Pull Post-Traumatic Stress out of the Trenches

Article excerpt

CHRISTIAN MCEACHERN recalls his time as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia as working "22 or 23 hours a day on the front line, being shot at--or guys are getting killed or wounded with land mines." During his 14 years in the Canadian Forces, including tours on United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Uganda, McEachern witnessed and experienced firsthand a number of horrifying events. "By the time I came home after about a year and a half in Yugoslavia ... I was pretty wired," he says. "And it wasn't just me, it was everybody."

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Upon returning from operations overseas, McEachern and many of his army buddies fell to partying hard. "You could still do your job, but you were making more self-destructive decisions," he says. "When you look back at my dossier at when I got in trouble at particular times, it was all related to either right after an operation or after a significant event within the military." Now in his 40s and living outside of Black Diamond, Alberta, McEachern presents the image of a fit, avid outdoorsy-type. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress, and was honourably discharged from the Canadian Forces in 2001.

I first met McEachern in 2009 while conducting research for my PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba. Through conversations with him and other Canadian and American veterans during the past five years, I became aware of a growing grassroots movement among veterans seeking ways beyond conventional treatments to manage their stress injuries. Some are turning to writing groups, meditation and volunteering, but an increasing number are turning to nature--farming and gardening, hiking and fishing, building relationships with dogs or horses. This does not mean conventional treatments are obsolete. Many veterans continue to benefit from medication and therapy, but find that nature provides an additional measure of support, relief and healing in their lives.

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After receiving his diagnosis in 1998 and undergoing years of counselling and medication, McEachern describes sitting on the banks of the Columbia River in 2005 and finally feeling "at peace with life for a moment" and realizing "maybe it would be helpful for other veterans to be able to sit here on the river bank, too." From 2006 to 2011, McEachern ran the non-profit Canadian Veteran Adventure Foundation (CVAF) with a vision to provide another tier of care and treatment for veterans suffering from stress injuries through outdoor programming and adventure training. Among other activities, the CVAF took stress-injured veterans rafting, horseback riding and camping.

Veterans turning to nature for occupation, support and healing has deep roots. In Defiant Gardens, Kenneth Helphand describes how First World War soldiers planted and harvested gardens right in the trenches. "In contrast to war," he writes, "gardens assert the dignity of life, human and nonhuman, and celebrate it." Garden therapy was used to treat shell-shocked First World War soldiers, and horticultural therapy was first developed in US veterans' hospitals during the Second World War.

In 1942, the Canadian government instituted the Veterans' Land Act, which provided grants, low-interest loans and training for veterans to become farmers, smallholders and commercial fishers. The program supported more than 140,000 veterans before being terminated in 1977.

A 2013 Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) study reports that 13.5 per cent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2008 suffer from deployment-related mental injuries. Some experts outside the DND argue the study severely underestimates the number of suffering soldiers and veterans, and suggests the real number could be double. Post-deployment screening reports have found that one in four Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan engages in high-risk drinking or experiences negative states ranging from depression to thoughts of suicide. …