It's doubtful they were thinking of rows of corn and wheat fields while fighting in the dust and deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. But for plenty of combat veterans returning to civilian life, tending to crops and learning to farm the land has become a rewarding, if unexpected, change of pace.
There is no shortage of challenges for returning veterans, and though veteran unemployment is at an eight-year low, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, it remains a significant hurdle. Veteran unemployment was at 5.3 percent in 2014 (the most recent year for which labor statistics are available), due to a number of "hire veterans first" efforts, including the 2008 Farm Bill from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After discovering that almost half of all veterans hail from rural backgrounds across the United States, the USDA has helped partner ranchers and farmers with veterans. Though there is no nationwide program, state-run and nonprofit agencies have worked to transition farmers into agricultural jobs through hands-on training, often creating live-work environments to help ease the transition of returning from active duty.
Some of this process is chronicled in the 2013 documentaryGround Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields, which follows the stories of combat men and women who are now running or participating in local, organic farming with a shared goal: ensuring food security across the country.
The 41-minute film will screen at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 7, at the Irish Cultural Center near Central Avenue and Portland Street in downtown Phoenix. The presentation comes courtesy of Arizona State University's Food System Transformation Initiative, in ASU's School of Sustainability. The screening is in partnership with Value Our Veterans, a farmer-veteran nonprofit; the Pat Tillman Veterans Center; and the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement.
The screening is free for veterans and $10 for the public, with proceeds benefiting Ground Operations programs both within Arizona and nationwide. Advance tickets are available online through eventbrite.com.
A post-film panel will take audience questions and engage in a discussion about everything from opportunities for veterans to sustainable food practices and production to food scarcity and security.
Panelists include Ground Operations producer and director Dulanie Ellis; Mark Killian, director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture; Rita French, an Army veteran and current chef at Engrained Café on ASU's Tempe campus; and Michael McKenzie, a Marine Corps veteran, professor of horticulture at Central Arizona College, and owner of Lucky Nickel Ranch in Eloy, which offers a veteran outreach and live-work program.
Light refreshments will be available for audience members from Helpings Café, an extension of UMOM New Day Centers, the largest network of shelters for homeless families in the Phoenix area. The restaurant features a modest menu of pastries, sandwiches, and salads.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m., film starts at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 7, at Irish Cultural Center, 1106 North Central Avenue. Tickets are $10 and proceeds support both local and national Ground Operations programs. Free admission for veterans and active military members. For tickets and details, visit www.eventbrite.com. See more at www.groundoperations.net.
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.