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Saved by the SOIL

After experiencing healing for PTSD from gardening, Army veteran Malachias Gaskin is on a mission to get other veterans growing
By Sarah Geyer 3/23/2018


By spending time every day helping a plant grow — nurturing, feeding, watering, pruning, and then feeding family with it — veterans become part of the life process.
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Twenty-two. That’s the number of veterans who commit suicide every 24 hours.

“I could easily be part of this statistic,” Ralph “Malachias” Gaskin, a medically retired veteran and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) survivor, told his session attendees during the recent 2018 Pick Tennessee Conference.

“In combat, you are up close and personal with death and destruction,” said the former 11B Infantryman and 68W Combat Medic. “You’re anxious, on edge, and grieving those injured and killed — and those emotions don’t just go away once you’re home. And I speak from personal experience.”

Following his final deployment in 2010, the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, native with a combined 17 years of service through the National Guard and active duty Army, asked himself: “How can I get past all this in my head and move on with my life?”

The answer, he discovered, was as close as his backyard.

 “I got in the dirt and started planting seeds,” he explained. “By spending time every day helping a plant grow — nurturing, feeding, watering, pruning, and then feeding my family with it — I had become part of the life process. Caring for plants couldn’t delete the trauma, but the positivity I experienced began to balance out and even replace some of the darkness. Through gardening, I discovered the most amazing path to healing my PTSD.”

The recent Tennessee transplant served as one of 56 speakers at the third annual, three-day Pick Tennessee Conference held this year Feb. 15-17 at the Downtown Marriott in Chattanooga.    

During his presentation, the impassioned speaker shared his journey that began as a personal quest for self-healing and has transformed into a multi-faceted therapy garden outreach program for veterans and first responders.

Malachias’ journey began in 2010, when he was diagnosed with PTSD following two tours and a combined 28 months in Iraq. He would eventually receive medical retirement, but during the lengthy discharge process, the returning soldier was stationed near Savannah, Georgia, where he received what he describes as the typical treatment for PTSD — medications and therapy. After a few months on the regime, he realized pharmaceuticals were not his long-term solution.

“I was gaining weight, I felt out of it, and I stunk so bad my wife didn’t want to be near me,” he explained. “I had no idea that medication could make you smell, but I looked it up and not just one [of my prescriptions] but all of them had that side effect.”

After weaning himself off the medications, Malachias embarked on a search for self-healing methods while continuing his therapy sessions. The former hard rock band member first turned to the familiar. He poured himself into writing music, finding fragments of peace and re-focusing his spiritual walk.

After nearly a year in therapy and frustrated with the passive nature of his sessions, Malachias asked his therapist a pointed, perhaps slightly sarcastic question. Her casual response, also delivered with a tad of the sardonic, would unwittingly place the PTSD sufferer on his path to recovery.

“I said, ‘During our sessions, I talk and talk and you listen,’” he recalled. “’But it never feels like I accomplish anything other than talking. Aren’t you supposed to give me something to do?’ She said offhandedly, ‘I don’t know, get a dog or start a garden.’ I think she was probably joking, but I figured, ‘Why not?’”

His wife, Paige, vetoed the dog, but, with healthier eating as one of her goals, jumped on the idea of a garden. Just hours following his session, the couple was headed to a store to purchase wood, seed, and dirt. That same night, with Paige holding a flashlight in either hand, Malachias constructed his first raised-box garden and planted his first crop — sweet potatoes, okra, sweet peas, and peppers — in the couple’s small post-housing backyard.

“I felt goofy at first — like ‘what’s this hard rock guy doing working in a garden?’” he said. “But in a week, plants starting popping up, and it was so cool that I went back to the store for more wood, seed, and a few five-gallon buckets.”

After adding squash, leafy greens, herbs, and tomatoes to his new project, Malachias said his tiny yard looked more like a jungle than a garden. Soon, his neighbors were regularly stopping by, intrigued by their friend’s new pastime.

“I’d tell them, ‘Dude! I’m growing ‘maters!” he recalls. “And guess what! It’s helping my PTSD!’”

Then he’d share his now sacred nightly ritual.

“As soon as I’d get home from work, I’d head out to the garden,” said the father of three — sons Brandon and Colin and daughter Solaya. “I’d pull weeds, check on the plants, pick what was ripe, and then drink some coffee while watering. After about 30 minutes, I was calm and relaxed and ready to spend time with my family.”

When word spread about the benefits of his PSTD therapy garden, others on post were inspired to start one, too. Malachias not only shared what he’d learned, he also helped them create their own customized gardens, building beds or customizing buckets and barrels perfect for the small outdoor spaces common with military housing.

Encouraged by his neighbors’ response, Malachias reached out to other PTSD sufferers by sharing his self-healing journey on Facebook, garnering him a slew of followers, both military and non-military, from across the country. It was one of those followers, Nashvillian Robby Grayson, who urged Malachias to share his story with a wider audience by writing a book.

“I told him I was a high school dropout with a GED, and that nobody wanted to read my writing,” said Malachias. “And besides that, I pointed out that I’m nobody special. I’m not a general, and I didn’t plan any great battle. I’m just an average guy. But he wasn’t hearing it. When I finished with the excuses, he said, ‘Dude, just write the book.’”

Malachias started the seemingly impossible task with an outline of the chapters, and in just a few months, he’d completed the 109-page book. Published in 2013, “A Warrior’s Garden” describes his journey with a focus on his three pillars of self healing — faith, music, and gardening. To date, it has been sold in 70 countries.

After the new author shared that he’d been approved for medical retirement, Robby suggested his friend move to Tennessee. During a long weekend visit to the area, the veteran and his family not only fell in love with the region, but Malachias received a job offer as an office manager. Within a few weeks, the Gaskin clan was settled into a rental home in Brentwood.

The fresh start sparked a big-dream inspiration for the veteran — create a community space where dozens of veterans, first responders, and their families could plant and care for their own gardens at no cost.

First, the veteran enlisted help from a few hometown military friends. Together, they formed a non-profit organization, Warfighter Gardens. Next, they needed land.

While Malachias searched for acreage he could purchase in Middle Tennessee, his long-time friend and fellow veteran, Mike Nelson, was pursuing land possibilities in Indiana.

“One night out of the blue,” recalled Malachias, “Mike calls to tell me Ft. Wayne’s Journey Free Methodist Church has 25 acres they’ll let us use at no cost, and they will provide church counselors during the times people are working in the gardens.”

In just one weekend, the two friends, joined by veterans and their families, built 50 raised-bed gardens on the church’s land. With Mike as CEO of the Indiana branch of Warfighters Garden, the program has experienced rapid growth and ample community support.

In 2016, Malachias and his family embraced rural life and purchased a house with 22 acres in Columbia. Designated as the second installment of the Warfighters Gardens, Honor22 Farms is home to 32 5-foot-by-5-foot beds. At the urging of his wife and 14-year-old daughter, the veteran also added 100 backyard chickens to the farm’s offerings.

“Our concept is that the community garden space serves as a weigh station or a training ground for them [veterans and first responders] with the goal to eventually learn to garden at home,” said the new Maury Farmers Cooperative customer. “Once they are comfortable with working in the garden and express an interest in continuing with it, we offer to help them create a home garden. With the help of donations, we provide everything they need — the seed, the dirt, the lumber and even help build the boxes.”

Once the veterans have their own gardens, Malachias said he and Mike are noticing that the cycle of sharing continues as the new home gardeners reach out to friends and neighbors about their new hobby.

“They’re excited about what they’ve learned, and it’s natural for the men and women who spent their careers serving others to embrace the opportunity to share,” he explained. “Sometimes, it’s just accidental. They’re out digging in the dirt and a friend comes by. Then it’s: ‘Hey Jim, come garden with me. This has worked so well for me; it’s amazing.’ And now they’ve become the mentors.”

Another important aspect of the Warfighter Gardens experience is an emphasis on family, which, Malachias quickly added, doesn’t just refer to blood relatives. Gardening should become a hobby for the entire family, he explained. Initially, the vets are asked to visit alone, allowing them time to deal with the often unexpected emotional release of the experience.

“Right off the bat, I let them know the garden is a safe space,” explained Malachias. “I tell them: ‘Whatever is said here, stays here. Whatever happens here, stays here. If you break down in tears because you make a breakthrough or made a connection, I’m not telling anybody about it.’”

When the vets are beginning to feel comfortable in the garden, families are asked to become part of the experience.

“It becomes therapy for the entire home,” he said. “What we [veterans] don’t always acknowledge is that what we go through — the anger, depression, and anxiety — the people in our lives are experiencing the effect of those emotions and the trauma that comes with that. We want them to respect our healing process, and it’s time we respect that they need healing, too.”

This year, Honor22 Farms will broaden their therapy offerings beyond backyard chickens in order to reach a new segment of veterans, ones who would benefit from working with animals. Malachias said they’ve raised enough funds to purchase two Longhorn cows and two hogs for the farm, as well as fencing and installation.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Malachias has embarked on the next chapter of his journey. His newest endeavor — a two-day, intensive hands-on seminar — incorporates each step of his odyssey, combining his book’s concept of the three pillars of healing with the family and community component of Warfighters Gardens.

Last August, Malachias had the opportunity to lead his first seminar — in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Participants spent their first day in the classroom, where their leader shared his personal journey to self healing and then helped group members begin their own process with the new supplemental “A Warrior’s Garden” workbook. On the second day, the attendees worked together, building and planting 25 raised-bed gardens for a local community center.

That experience — creating and leading a seminar based on the lessons learned during a nearly decade-long journey —was one of the most moving Malachias said he’s ever experienced. And his interaction with two of the participants is “living” proof to the powerful positive healing of gardening.

He shared this emotional story from the seminar during his Pick Tennessee session:

The two men, one a veteran and the other a Civilian, decided to attend the workshop as a last-ditch effort for help. Each, unbeknownst to the other, was planning to commit suicide that night.

“The next morning, the men shared their stories with me,” he said. “They told me that before lunch, they had changed their minds. They said, ‘We have a mission now, something to work toward.’

“I’m not a numbers person. I haven’t kept count of how many veterans and their families have been part of this mission of ours. But, in that moment, I realized that even if by just a few, we could reduce that deadly statistic of 22.”

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