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Veterans move from battlefields to farmlands

Translating military skills to the world of agriculture

Working in agriculture may have saved former Stryker Brigade soldier Staff Sgt. Mark Oravsky's life. Courtesy photo

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We've all heard about how difficult the transition from active military service to the civilian world can be. There are a myriad of organizations out there that work to help service men and women go from boots on the ground to successful civilian careers. There are apprenticeship programs, education opportunities, franchise opportunities and much more.

And now, thanks to GRuB and Growing Veterans, there are agricultural opportunities as well.

GRuB - Garden Raised Bounty - is an Olympia-based nonprofit that brings agriculture to low-income families in Thurston and Mason counties. Since 1993, the organization has constructed more than 2,300 backyard and community gardens and provided support and training to help gardeners succeed. Its youth programs, Kitchen Garden Project and farms have helped thousands of people in the South Sound.

In October, GRuB added a new program aimed at helping local veterans: GRuB Growing Veterans, an outpost of Growing Veterans, a nonprofit organization founded in Bellingham in 2012 by veteran Chris Brown. Growing Veterans doesn't just help service members find meaningful work and volunteer opportunities in the field of sustainable agriculture; it also helps provide support for veterans struggling to find a sense of community and purpose again after separating from the military.

Working in agriculture may have saved former Stryker Brigade Staff Sgt. Mark Oravsky's life.  

Oravsky, who deployed to Afghanistan with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in 2009-10, began to suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress not long after leaving the military in 2011 after 14 years of service.

Newly divorced, he returned to school to work on his degree. Two semesters in, however, he began to feel "disconnected, detached and had a lack of purpose," he said.

"I dropped out of school and spent nine or ten months on the couch surrounded by fifth bottles and pizza boxes contemplating suicide," he said. "A loaded pistol was on the table, and the highlight of my day was laying balled up in the bottom of the bathtub crying uncontrollably."

Oravsky turned to the American Lake Veterans Administration for help, but didn't find what he needed.

"I got to a very low spot where I seriously contemplated putting the metal in my mouth," he said.  

Somehow, he persevered and found work. During the next few years he stayed healthy.

But the specter of PTSD continued to haunt him.

"I still felt isolated, detached, disconnected. Not surrounded by my brothers and sisters in my front, left, right and rear," he said. " I felt as if I had moved from a world of black and white to a sea of woolen grey."

After several years sober, Oravsky relapsed.

"I rode the tip of the needle from Washington to a hotel room in Sacramento," he said. "I was surrounded by dope and broken needles and contemplated, again, that I could fill up one good syringe and knock it out and I'd be done. But there was something inside of me that was like, 'No, you gotta fight harder than that. There has to be something else out there.'"

He got himself clean, returned to Washington and started counseling outside of the VA system.

Late one night, while he was on his computer, Oravsky discovered an organization called The Mission Continues. It was a life-changing discovery.

"Their motto, 'It's not a charity; it's a challenge,' caught my eye at three in the morning," Oravsky said.

The concept is novel: pay veterans a stipend to work 20 hours a week for a nonprofit organization in their community.

"It was twenty hours a week to just be, and that's what I was learning in counseling," Oravsky said. "I needed to slow down and be. It was an opportunity."

He submitted his application and started searching for a nonprofit. His girlfriend suggested he try GRuB.

"I called and spoke directly to the executive director, and we talked for an hour and 45 minutes," he said. "It was the first time that I felt like I was being heard. Someone was listening."

He started volunteering with GRuB in January 2014, and his fellowship with The Mission Continues came through in May.

"I built [a lot] of backyard vegetable gardens," he said."I had all these amazing experiences connecting with other people I would never have expected to connect with. We shared a common theme and that's struggle. That's challenge, and that's turbulence. And I was getting to do something and go home at the end of the day feeling like ... I'm really doing something. I saw people's lives change as a result of these gardens."

As Oravsky's fellowship with The Mission Continues was winding down, Brown was looking for a coordinator for an outpost of Growing Veterans in the South Sound. It was perfect timing, and Oravsky started the job officially in October. Since then, he has been keeping his hands dirty building backyard vegetable gardens and finding local veterans to join him.

For more information, visit, and or email Oravsky at

Ground Operations Screening

Farmers in the United States are retiring at such a rate that the USDA will need a million new farmers in the next 10 years.

At the same time, veterans are leaving active duty in record numbers and looking for post-military careers. In the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area alone, more than 11,000 service members will leave active duty in the next two years. Thurston, Pierce and Mason counties are projected to have the highest Post 9/11 veteran population in the state.

Organizations like GRuB (Garden Raised Bounty) in Olympia hope to help those veterans transition by affording them opportunities in the field of sustainable agriculture.

Join GRuB, Enterprise for Equity, Oly Float, Rainier Therapeutic Riding, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Conservation Corps on March 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the Capitol Theater for a screening of the film Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields, a documentary that examines the plight of farmers and demonstrates how veterans can translate military skills to the world of agriculture.

Following the movie screening, County Commissioner Bud Blake will moderate a discussion about the relationship between food security and veteran transition. For more information about the film, visit

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