For thousands of U.S. troops, the transition from the military to civilian life is not an easy one. Veterans have a 35 percent unemployment rate, and estimates are that more than 100,000 are homeless at some point. The government offers programs to help veterans, and many private organizations provide assistance as well. One of those efforts is called Archi's Acres, a groundbreaking program on a farm in southern California.
Nuturing combat veterans
After three tours of duty in Iraq, Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley was ready to return to civilian life. He and his wife, Karen, bought a farm in southern California and started to produce organic, hydroponic crops. Instead of being planted in soil, their produce is nurtured in pure, filtered water.
In addition to basil, loose leaf lettuce and tomatoes, Archi's Acres nurtures combat veterans. Archipley is growing what he sees as the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurs.
Karen says her husband wanted to share the peace he'd found on the farm with his former comrades. "Colin started working with the trees and the plants and realized how amazing that was for his own healing," she says. "He started talking with the people he served with and they were re-enlisting not because they necessarily wanted to but because they couldn't feed themselves, that's when we turned around as a couple and said, 'We can make a difference here. That's not fair.'"
Moving to the private sector
So the Archipleys worked with the local Veteran Administration's office to help returning troops translate the leadership skills they learned in the military to the private sector.
"We have these very young leaders that, with just some new hands-on skills, some new training, can make very productive workers and very efficient leaders," says Colin Archipley.
Corey Pollard, 26, is one of the vets acquiring those new hands-on skills. In 2005, after his third tour in Iraq and uncertain about what to do with his life, he checked out the program at Archi's Acres at the suggestion of a platoon mate. He liked that it was run by a fellow Marine and how it focused on easing combat veterans back into society in a productive way.
"I'm thinking about starting my own operation because once you've been here for a while, you start to pick up on things and you start to know how little things work," says Pollard, who believes the program has benefited him. "I'm not college educated, so just learning some kind of skill I can use in the future, that's good for me."
In January, Colin Archipley expands his program to include active military personnel who are winding up their service. Archipley notes that many veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, made worse when they can't get jobs and find themselves homeless. He believes that if service personnel spend their last few months in the military learning skills which can land them a job, the high rate of PTSD will drop.
"Working with the active-duty military people means that we are going to be able to train them and get them into that meaningful work environment before they start seeing those symptoms," he says. "And I'm hoping that we not only generate new farmers and new entrepreneurs, new business owners and get these guys employed, but that we curb some of those signs of PTSD diagnosis and be proactive in that effort."
In his new six-week course, Archipley will teach agriculture skills - from planting to harvest. Karen, a former fashion designer, will teach marketing. Educators from the Small Business Administration are also involved. They will offer classes on cash flow projections, fundamentals of entrepreneurship, resume writing and how to build a business plan around a farming operation.
Archipley doesn't expect his graduates to have any problems finding work because the jobs are already out there.
"We think the veteran community is perfect to fill in these jobs where growers are reaching retirement and no one's filling their spots, or to learn the equipment so that they can distribute it throughout the United states and they can feel the satisfaction of being part of an entity that feeds America."
Archipley hopes to expand his program even further, to serve veterans on the East Coast. He also plans to put the six-week seminar online, so that anyone in the military, anywhere, can start preparing for a productive life as a civilian.