War, Peace, Farming, and Art

Returning to civilian life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, a growing group of veterans find refuge through art and farming. Republished from Fresh Dirt Ithaca.

Nathan Lewis in the greenhouse.
Photos by Lauren DeCicca.

In a humid greenhouse on the backroads of Trumansburg, Nathan Lewis, a 28-year old veteran of the Iraq war, weaves through a maze of of tables, hoses, and water tanks, pointing out the various plants he and other members of the Veterans’ Sanctuary are cultivating this year—chives, licorice, a hardy citrus tree, a hardy kiwi, a curling willow.

It’s an odd selection for upstate New York, but the veterans, who get most of their plants by donation, fill pools of water in the greenhouse to keep the air humid for the nonnative species. Despite their efforts, they can’t seem to solve their mouse problem, which raises the question: How does a peaceful, antiwar group like this one deal with pests?

“My friend John said to ask them nicely to leave,” Lewis says. “After a while, I’m inclined to stomp on them.”

The Veterans’ Sanctuary, which was set up to help soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acclimate to civilian life, is a recent addition to the list of project partners at Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action. Located in an Italianate house on a hill overlooking the village of Trumansburg, the sanctuary endeavors to create a new model for healing from war trauma—one that involves peer support, reconnection with nature through farming, and a connection to self-expression through art.

“We’re definitely not the first to try this, but maybe we’re the first to try it with the combination of art and farming and the focus on peer support,” says Lewis, rubbing a piece of cilantro between his fingertips. “We try to find alternative remedies. Mostly what helps is telling your story and being around people who understand so you don’t feel judged or have to explain things.”

Tall and willowy, with a thick shock of hair that falls over his forehead, Lewis joined the Army just out of high school. “I went to see a guidance counselor and I wrote that I wanted to go to college and work on computers. I spelled both ‘college’ and ‘computers’ wrong, and they sent me to the Army recruiter’s office,” he says, laughing.

The Army trained him to fly fighter planes and drop cluster bombs, then sent him to Iraq. After returning home, Lewis joined the Veterans’ Sanctuary as a way to heal from what he calls “war trauma.” He prefers that term to “PTSD,” as it encompasses the more pervasive, debilitating psychological alterations that come from being in or around a war zone, whether or not in actual combat. “Even on a biological level, some of the most routine things about the military will kind of change you,” he says. “Staying alert. Staying up all night. [The military] is geared to break down your natural human resistance against killing. That’s a big one.”

For him, the sanctuary provides something most modern-day vets miss out on. “If you look at Native American and Roman cultures, war was treated as a very serious thing,” Lewis says. “There were elaborate, specific ceremonies for when the warriors came home. They would participate in storytelling, sand painting, and village talks as part of reacclimating to civilian life. I think we lack that.”

Aside from farming, the sanctuary also supports the Combat Paper Project, wherein veterans pulverize their old uniforms into a pulp to make paper that they then use to create art. Last spring, they exhibited their work— paintings, sculptures, collages—at the Ink Shop in Ithaca.

Chris Arendt, at the Veterans’ Sanctuary, with one of his sculptures.

At the opening, Chris Arendt (who joined the National Guard at 17, was deployed at Guantanamo Bay in 2003, and testified in 2008 about prisoner abuse there) talked about finding the project at a low point after his return, when he felt alienated and depressed. “I was crying like a little broken-down baby,” he said. “I felt like for the first time since my deployment, I didn’t have to explain something I couldn’t explain to people who hadn’t been through it.”

He talked about how the Combat Paper Project and the sanctuary had changed his life. “It’s like a rogue kind of talk therapy. I lived for 20 years with a World War II vet and never heard anything about what it was like to bein the South Pacific. I didn’t know you could talk about it.”

Paper making, he continued, helps vets calm their anxiety by channeling the discipline they learned in the military into something creative rather than destructive.

He gestured toward one of his sculptures: a pale blue medicine cabinet filled with pills and pill bottles from the VA. Across the mirror on the front of the cabinet Arendt had scrawled, “Good Morning, PTSD.” The piece is called It’s Going to Be a Good Month This Month. . . .

“This was about the way the Army treats PTSD,” said Arendt, who has close-cropped hair and arresting blue eyes. “They just give you sacks of this shit. You don’t even have to say anything that crazy and you walk out with a garbage bag full of this stuff.”

Nathan Lewis also spoke at the opening and recited “Thanksgiving” (excerpted below), a poem he wrote about Turkey’s decision not to allow the U.S. to attack Iraq from their soil:

I give thanks to Turkey

To Turkey that refused to allow 60,000 foreign war hawks to roost in the southeast corner of her yard

A multi-billion U.S. dollar plate of cookies and cakes couldn’t change her mind

The very moment Bush shouted “Democracy” Turkey nodded in agreement and closed the gate . . .

I give thanks on this day because not that long ago I was one of those foreign hawks sent to scratch in a far off field

Think hard and imagine if you can, the thousands of lives saved on both sides; conscripts and civilians . . .

I give thanks on this day to Turkey

For . . . the rocket cluster bombs I hauled killed with terrible indiscretion.

Now, back at the greenhouse with Veterans’ Sanctuary member Jon Hausrath, talking about his involvement in the war still makes Lewis shake his head. “I‘m ashamed to have had that role in the military,” he says. “The United States, Russia, and China still haven’t signed on to this international ban on landmines and cluster bombs, and I think that’s appalling.”

“If you’re a veteran,” says Hausrath, “you don’t really stop thinking about the wars that we’re in, whereas a lot of people become complacent and forget that there are people dying every day.”

Hausrath, 28, signed up in 2005 as a medic, hoping to bear witness to the “catastrophe” of the war in Iraq. Tattoos cover his arms—a Red Cross nurse on his biceps, a pirate girl on his right side, a wounded heart on his forearm, “Don’t Tread on Me” on his other biceps. (“I have revolutionary politics in my heart,” he says.)

“I thought I could maybe be a humanitarian or something,” Hausrath continues. “But the more I went through my training, the more I realized that it wasn’t a humanitarian mission at all.”

Looking forward, Lewis hopes the sanctuary will help veterans heal for many years to come. “We’re going to continue to farm here and do more art shows and poetry readings,” he says. “We want to meet more veterans and expand our group and maybe chip away at the war a little bit with our art, with our self-sufficiency. Little victories—that’s what we’re going for.”

As for the mice and other animals, the veterans are still trying different methods of keeping them out of the greenhouse. Right now they leave a boom box playing at night to keep the mice at bay. Lewis leans down to check the music.

“The Smiths, ‘The Queen Is Dead!’” he laughs. “We put on right-wing talk radio—that seems to keep ’em away.”

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