Hands-On Healing for Military Veterans

man in camouflage pants gardeningFor many military personnel, transitioning from overseas combat to civilian life is a challenge. Veterans mental health issues, including debilitating anxiety, depression, physical pain, stress, and isolation can set in swiftly without solid sources of support and relief in place. A recent report by the American Psychiatric Association states that approximately 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, which, if left untreated, may lead to severe mental health symptoms, including suicidal thoughts and behavior. With mental health conditions widely stigmatized as a sign of weakness in military circles, reaching out for help is sometimes the most difficult step toward recovery.

The good news: In response to the unique challenges of those who endure combat, therapies that go beyond the tried and true are making their way to the surface. A glimpse into a few of these alternative forms of healing follows.

Plant a Seed, Watch It Grow: ‘Dirt Therapy’ for Veterans

Established in June 2012, Growing Veterans, which operates its community-oriented farm on three acres of land in Lynden, Washington, offers a form of healing they refer to as “dirt therapy”—essentially, planting seeds and growing them in the dirt. According to a recent survey conducted by Growing Veterans, 90% of participants find that helping others through their work on the farm is making them feel better, and 74% are taking better care of themselves with regard to the foods they eat.

The farm’s director, Christopher Brown, is a 27-year-old former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent Grow Northwest article, Brown shares that following an honorable discharge in 2008, he found the shift from combat to civilian life to be a challenge, so a counselor suggested growing plants as a way of coping with his posttraumatic stress. He started small—with a planter box—and then moved to raised beds. Eventually, he accepted a job offer with Growing Washington, a nonprofit farming organization based in Everson, Washington.

Brown now plants, nurtures, grows, and harvests alongside several fellow veterans and community members as part of Growing Veterans, which is sponsored by Growing Washington with the help of Viva Farms in Skagit County and The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that encourages veterans to actively engage in their communities once they return home. This push toward community involvement is largely inspired by the belief that isolation is one of the biggest challenges many veterans may face, to which the Growing Veterans crew attests.

Chris Rowell, a Bellingham, Washington native who served four years in the Navy and now volunteers regularly with Growing Veterans, says on the site, “The farm is relaxing; you’re surrounded by other people that have been in the same circumstances you’ve been in. It’s kind of like a therapy session, too; you can be who you want to be.”

In addition to the many personal stories of dirt therapy success shared on the Growing Veterans website, Chris Wolf, the farm’s manager, who also has a background in counseling, discusses recent research on the “mood-lifting properties of getting soil on your hands” in a video on the Growing Veterans YouTube channel. “There’s tiny bacteria in the soil that actually secrete a substance that goes through your skin and makes you happier,” she says. “It has the same effect on your brain as an antidepressant.”

Benefits of Guided Meditation and Massage Therapy

The beneficial effects of massage and meditation are becoming increasingly acknowledged in the research community, but not necessarily with regard to posttraumatic stress and other issues faced by veterans. In an effort to show the efficacy of these practices in facilitating the smooth transition of U.S. National Guard veterans and their partners upon returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan, researchers embarked on a project they call “Mission Reconnect: Promoting Resilience and Reintegration of Post-Deployment Veterans and Their Families” (Collinge, Kahn, and Soltysik, 2012).

The researchers were motivated by screenings that reveal that nearly “42% of National Guard veterans and roughly one-third of all returning veterans” experience symptoms concurrent with mental health conditions, but that most do not seek out nor receive treatment. Their belief is that through improvements in interpersonal relations and the implementation of stress-reduction practices such as massage and meditation, veterans will experience much less difficulty in returning to civilian life.

Essentially, the project is a “self-directed program” of evidence-based complementary therapies for the participants to use at home and report on in weekly online surveys. Those who took part in the study met for an orientation in which they received guided meditation, contemplation, and relaxation exercises on CD, as well as a printed manual and DVD that provided them with basic massage therapy instructions. The exercises on CD included audio tracks titled “Centering,” “Connecting,” “Movement into Stillness,” “Therapeutic Yawning,” and “Deep Relaxation.”

The veterans and their partners who followed the meditation exercises and employed basic massage techniques at least three to four times a week over the eight-week period reported experiencing “significant reductions” in a wide range of symptoms, including physical pain and tension, worrying, anxiety, irritability, and—specifically in response to massage—depression.

To further establish the importance of interpersonal relationships in reintegration, the researchers emphasize that the movement away from trauma-induced isolation and toward touch-based connection with another person, in this case an intimate partner, is a significant factor in the positive responses to the techniques used in the study.


  1. Collinge, W., Kahn, J., and Soltysik, R. (2012, December). Promoting reintegration of National Guard veterans and their partners using a self-directed program of integrative therapies: A pilot study. Military Medicine, 177(12): 1477–1485. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3645256/
  2. Growing Veterans. (2013, October 5). Growing Veterans: Dirt therapy. YouTube video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2PJd1XaBz0
  3. Grow Northwest. (2013, November 6). Growing veterans: Small farm offers dirt therapy, community for local veterans and volunteers. Retrieved from http://www.grownorthwest.com/2013/11/growing-veterans/

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  • melissa d

    November 13th, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    I love this. A little thinking outside of the box never hurt anyone; in fact, I think that more often than not this kind of process helps men and women both learn to trust again and to grow, to show them that they are not alone, there are others who care, and there are some very organic and meaningful ways that they can move their lives forward even when the thought of traditional therapy scares them or makes them uncomfortable.

  • Steven

    November 14th, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    What kind of availability for this is there? I mean, who is giving these referrals and recommendations so that these men and women can find treatment options like this?

  • Nikki

    November 15th, 2013 at 4:12 AM

    As a gardener myself, I didn’t realize that there is actually something in the soil that could make me feel better! I just thought that this was something that I enjoyed, tending something and watchin it grow, that was so therapeutic and relaxing for me but now I know that there is a chemical element to it too that can’t be denied! My garden is my escape, my therapy if you will, and my way to relieve stress and relax. I love to get my hands dirty and feel this sense of accomplishment when I have taken something from just a vision in my head to a reality once it begins to grow. I pray that there are more people like veterans who could find some small relief in this too.

  • Shel

    November 16th, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    More times than not I think that these kinds of things are dismissed as being all flighty with no real benefit but I think that they could really be onto something here. Massage is a great way to release tension and stress and so is something that is hands on like gardening or even yard work that can be strenuous but gives you this sense of doing something important and I think that for many this is a great visual reminder of what they are doing. Well worth the effort to try to work with someone who not only believes in this but who can alos get you in with the right practitioner when it is time.

  • craig

    November 19th, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    I can barely get the VA to pay for doctors visits, how am I going to get them to pay for something like this?

  • cara

    December 15th, 2013 at 6:14 AM

    I’ve lived with post since I was a nurse in the army during Vietnam War and after. I am over 60 yrs. Old now and still have so much I can say, that there is not en uno room here but one tthing that helps me is to remember that I am outside the box of life while normal people are inside the box looking out. This helps me understand myself.

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