From fighters to farmers: Veterans transition to civilian life

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria was once owned by George Washington’s family.

“In Virginia, this was a slave plantation,” explained Pamela Hess, Executive Director of Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food.

Today, veterans plant seeds, pull weeds, and even do some soul searching as part of Arcadia’s Veteran Farmer Training program.

“I think farming is therapeutic for everyone, we don’t present this as therapy for anybody, this is an occupational program, but the fact is the thing that helps vets transition back into civilian life is meaningful work,” said Hess.

Clifton Hoffler was in the military for more than 22 years, he served in Desert Storm and the Iraqi War.  Hoffler is now working on opening his own farm to table restaurant.

“During this last deployment, in Iraq, one of my soldiers died in my arms,” Hoffler told DCW50 while he took a break from tending to the land.

Hoffler said it is a pain and guilt he still struggles with.

“We call it the invisible injury; people don’t always see it.  Farming is part of my recovery, giving back and being able to not focus on what happened helps,” Hoffler expressed.

Refocusing energy and giving back -- two constants the veterans in Arcadia’s program have in common.

Chris Papavasilliou is in the active reserves.  He too, served in Iraq.  Papavasilliou said coming home was far from easy.

“I suffered from a bit of depression, a melancholy feeling you know.”

Papavasilliou can be called back out at anytime, but in the meantime he is focusing on opening a farm to table resort in his wife’s homeland, the Bahama’s.

“It is a beautiful place; it is a place that needs fresh food.  The health issues are similar to the United States, with diabetes and high blood pressure, being there and seeing the challenges they have and how difficult it is to get something fresh made my wife and I realize it is a serious problem, and I’d like to be a part of the solution,” said Papavasilliou as he picked up a hoe.

A little farther south, working on a farm right outside of Richmond, Virginia, DCW50 found Isaac Lee, a combat army vet.

“I was a sniper.  I overlooked and gathered intel to report back to headquarters,” said Lee.

Lee explained that at first he loved it, but there was only one way to describe his time in Iraq, “It was very intense.  You heard, probably more than about 20 explosions a day, maybe 30.  At times it was really intense and other times it was kind of peaceful, but it was war.”

But what Lee found even more difficult than being at war, was coming home.

“I came back to a country that didn’t care.  It was like thanks for protecting us, but we don’t want you to work for us,” Lee expressed.

For Lee and many other veterans, finding work has proven be a struggle.

“Before you get out of the Army, they tell you that you’re not going to have a problem getting a job because you’re a veteran, but that’s a lie, that’s a horrible lie,” Lee said on the verge of tears.  “It is incredibly difficult to find a job once you’re out, it took me 5 years.”

The combat veteran said coming back to his farming roots through Arcadia essentially saved his life.

“I feel like I’m starting to come full circle back to the person I used to be.”

Free from guilt, free from stress, and gainfully employed, the veterans said through farming, they have found a new hope.

For more information on the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and their veteran farming training program: