"I was into sustainability, he was into working with veterans... "
Photos by Megan Monday
Steve and Steph | Middleton, WI
Steve: I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center live on TV in American history class. After that, all my friends were enlisting. It was kinda just the thing to do.
I was already living on my own in high school, and I didn't really know where I wanted to go in life. I knew that I was working in dead-end jobs. I was already just kind of fed up with my situation. I didn't come from much financially, and college was never mentioned growing up. So I was on my way home from this landscaping job, and I was thinking about what branch would I join, if I joined. The second I thought that, an army recruiter called me on my cell phone.
So I signed up. College tuition, a way out of my current path, it looked good. I wasn't really all about all the GI Joe stuff, but I became indoctrinated in basic training. I ended up a distinguished undergraduate of basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training), and my job was a forward observer. I was artillery, and my plan was to kill Osama Bin Laden.
A few months before we actually deployed they came to me and a few others and said, "Hey, you're going to be re-purposed as a brigade commander's personal security team." I was the lead driver of our three-truck convoy. I drove 18,000 miles in 11 months through the heaviest-hit IED roads in the entire country. During that time I went to about 60 funeral ceremonies, and most of them were multiple deaths. Every night when I made that last turn into camp I was just like, "How the hell did we make it through another day?"
I was one of the fastest-promoted soldiers in our entire brigade. They were grooming me to take over our platoon, but I got injured. It was non-combat. I had two back surgeries to try and fix it, but after that, I wasn't being groomed anymore.
Steve: I came home, but I was followed by nightmares and anxiety. I was diagnosed with PTSD.
I went to school, but I just felt like the walls were closing in on me. It was a really difficult transition, going from being a ‘killing machine’ to a full-time student. I didn't relate to my peers at all. I felt like I needed to find out where the other veterans were to feel anything close to normal.
That's when I started a veteran's group on campus, the Veterans Outreach Organization. I needed it, and it turns out others needed it, too. It was like a vacuum that needed to be filled. All these vets just came out of the woodwork. We were all trying to transition. All trying to not feel alone.
A lot of us had issues, but to me there's no ‘disorder’ about going through traumatic experiences and then being changed by that. That's a natural reaction. I see some people go through loads of stuff and come home unaffected, but that wasn’t me, and that's not most of the veterans that are out here. We come home and we have to find ways to deal with it.
Steph: I was 16 years old when I had my son, Alex. Obviously it was a lot of responsibility really fast. I wanted to go to college, but statistically speaking I shouldn't even have graduated from high school. I graduated as valedictorian.
College was difficult, because you're just not the priority anymore. And I didn't make it easy for myself, going into the sciences. A lot of lab work, a lot of time commitment. It was pretty hard to relate to my peers, as well. There weren't many young mothers that I knew of on campus. When I met Steve, he stood out. We were both non-traditional students, so to speak.
Steve: I first noticed Steph—I saw this cute little lady walking around with a thermometer in her backpack. I thought, "Who's this nerd?" I was a full-fledged engineering math nerd myself. It just kind of piqued my interest to find out more about her.
Steph: We didn't know each other very well yet, but we were both named Students of the Year together. I was nominated for my work initiating the school composting program—I was into microbiology and sustainability, and Steve started the first ever Student Veteran's Organization, focused on veteran re-integration, connecting veterans with benefits, and educating our school on veteran's issues.
We started talking, started dating. One of those first dates, Steve was over at my place and I think I caught him off guard. He opened my fridge, fridge of a college student, and it was filled with fresh fruit and veggies.
Steve: I opened up the door and I was like, "Holy shit, where'd you get all this stuff?" She started telling me, "There's this community supported agriculture thing that I'm a member of." I was like, "What's that?" It was my first exposure to CSA. We would just eat like royalty. It was a really cool thing.
Steph: Pretty soon after that we started talking about where we wanted our lives to take us. I was really passionate about the food system, about the environment and sustainability. Steve was very passionate about working with veterans. We thought, "How can we meld the two?'"
Steve: We decided to volunteer a couple days on a CSA farm to see what we thought. Afterward, their field manager said, "Wow, usually volunteers don't make it through the whole day." I said, "Well, you should try joining the army and see how much work that is." It was a good fit.
I realized right away how much being out on the land benefited my own mental health, and I really wanted to bring other veterans out and show them how much connecting with the soil, doing something productive, feeding people, feeding yourself, how much all that can help you ground yourself again. Bring you back to center.
Steph: With his disability, too, we were getting really frustrated with trying to navigate the VA's benefit system all on our own. We didn't really feel like there was a community for us. And we kept hearing that the veteran unemployment rate is double that of civilians. So we decided to be part of creating something. Connecting veterans, creating employment opportunities.
Steve: When vets get out, a lot of them are still looking to serve. They're looking for that volunteerism, that way to give back. Farming provides that. And the way we’re doing that here—with the community model—it provides camaraderie, too.
Steph: There's something very therapeutic about being in the soil. Actually, microorganisms change your brain chemistry, there's some science behind that! And a lot of the service skills are transferable to farming. You have to take leadership. You have to problem-solve. It's hard physical work and you're outdoors. But at the end of the day, even on the most frustrating day, you get to literally see the fruits of your labor. You're feeding your community.
Steph: Farming. It's stressful. You put in, I don't even know, like over a hundred hours a week…
Steve: I feel like I’m farming even in my sleep.
Steph: You put all of your time and sweat and best laid plans, but there’s so much that you can't control. And that stress has taken a toll. On both of us.
Steve: When your organic crop gets a bug and it’s shot, or when you’re working too many hours and stressing out your family trying to make a living on it...
Steph: But we've been doing this now for three years, so we make up for each other's strengths and weakness. And we have a great group of workers and volunteers out here, this year especially. A few months ago Steve had his third back surgery related to the injury during his deployment. But we have this great community now, so when we needed help, we asked for it and it was there. Our members encouraged us to set up a GoFundMe, which allowed Steve’s brother, John, to move down and help out with this season. People have supported us through this whole journey. We’re really seeing what it means to live in community.
Every Wednesday, we all get together to pack our CSA boxes. I look at that last box, like, "Wow. Look at all this awesome food that we just grew for people. Now they're feeding themselves and their families. That’s some kid’s preschool lunch, there’s some veteran's dinner…" We’re providing jobs to veterans, and a place to connect. I feel really good about that. I tell people now, THIS is my service to our country. This is my service to my community.
Steve and Steph | Peacefully Organic Produce Farm | Middleton, WI