"One of the bigger problems I had was I no longer had a purpose, because in the Marine Corps, you are built up to have a pretty big ego," Robert Elliott told The Epoch Times.
This problem isn’t unique to Elliott or to the Marines specifically, but is common to many veterans who have recently made the transition from military service back to civilian life.
The lack of purpose, structure, and a support network can be devastating to veterans. It certainly was to Elliott—until he found a way to regain all three.
His answer? Farming.
BeginningsBorn in 1979, Elliott grew up on his aunt and uncle’s farm in North Carolina, where he learned both farming and ranching from an early age. However, it wasn’t a great life.
"Growing up, we seemed to always be broke," Elliot said. "The truth of the matter is farmers struggle way more than they thrive."
Not wanting to live the life of a poor farmer, Elliott joined the Marines’ Delayed Entry Program at age 17, while still in high school. He was inducted after graduation.
Elliott served for five years, making the rank of E4 corporal. He then worked as a civilian contractor to the military in North Carolina, where he had been stationed for his last post. "I got to stick around my military unit for 15 years total," he said.
That came to an end with contractor cuts from the Department of Defense. It was 2011, and he had a hard time finding replacement work.
"Out of pure necessity, I didn’t have much of a choice but to move back home to the farm," Elliott said.
"That’s what I refer to as my transitional-suicide time," he explained. "A lot of suicides in the veteran community happen during transition from military back to civilian life, typically around the nine-month mark because we’re disconnected from our support network pretty much overnight."
Saved by a ChickenOne day, Elliott was on the farm attempting to study for a final exam (he was attending college at the time) but was not in a healthy state of mind.
"Nothing was working out for me really well at all," he said. He was "pretty miserable" and contemplating dark thoughts.
His girlfriend at the time had recently purchased some yard chickens. One in particular, named Adele, would regularly jump into his lap or try to steal food from his hands.
"It just kind of dawned on me one day: Maybe I should try farming and see what I can do with it," Elliott said. "A chicken saved my life."
A Unique EducationElliott describes the whole operation as "a boot camp for farming."
His mission? “Giving veterans a new mission and America a new farmer.”
North Carolina has an aging farming population and a military servicemember and veteran population of 666,000, making Fayetteville, North Carolina the perfect location for VFNC to train a new generation of veteran farm entrepreneurs.
It has three hands-on programs which educate veterans in the how-to’s of farming, which include both organic vegetables and livestock production as well as history, theory, and agricultural concepts. Two programs are six months and one is four months. Around 20 veterans are enrolled in the programs at one time.
Elliott finds veterans through word of mouth and through presentations VFNC gives at Fort Braggs for exiting service members who are interested in transitional training.
VFNC also partners with government programs, such as the Department of Defense’s transitioning program, SkillBridge, where veterans can sign up for specific industry training, apprenticeships, or internships to learn the skills of a civilian career area.
Active-duty personnel may enroll within the final 180 days before transitioning to civilian life, with approval from their unit and the Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program.
Farming With FamilyDonovan Holloway is one of the veterans learning how to farm in the SkillBridge program partnering with the VFNC.
His background doesn’t have anything to do with farming.
Holloway was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1981. His father was a career sailor in the Navy, so Holloway spent most of his youth living on military bases, including Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
"I joined the military at the ripe, young age of 18," Holloway told The Epoch Times. His parents were divorced and he felt that he needed some stability in his life and the Marine Corps would provide it.
Holloway was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the initial invasion. Sometime later, he was stationed in Hawaii, where he met his future wife, Lauren.
Holloway returned to Iraq with an aerial observer unit, in which he served as a door gunner on a helicopter armed with a machine gun, at times having to fire that machine gun.
"We also participated in a couple of raids in and around the country," he said.
Through an education program provided by the Marine Corps, Holloway earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration alongside a promotion to second lieutenant. This was followed by a master’s in information technology and a promotion to captain.
"Somewhere along the line I got married and had kids and I experience stress at extreme levels," Holloway said, half-jokingly.
"I’ve lost buddies, both in combat and through suicide, unfortunately," he said. "There are a lot of things we go through as veterans, a lot of experiences we go through, especially during wartime, and your emotions are ebbing and flowing. There are a lot of things that incite my anxiety or get me going."
He’s found farming to be therapeutic.
"I needed to restore some kind of balance in my life. I found that being outside—being with animals, growing things, seeing the fruits of my labor right in front of me instead of sitting in meetings all day—I found that was soothing to me.”
The Holloways own 50 acres of land in Georgia, which was originally owned by Lauren’s ancestors.
"It’s been in my father’s side of my family since the Emancipation Proclamation," she told The Epoch Times.
Although her ancestors right up to her grandparents were hog farmers, Lauren’s father joined the Army, essentially ending the family’s legacy of farming.
The property in Georgia was farmland at one time, but as Lauren explained, "It needs to be reclaimed." And that’s what the Holloways plan to do.
It’s also been great for his family. The Holloways homeschool their five children, so "everything that we do is a lesson," he said. Another advantage is the food that the farm provides.
“I enjoy the time being able to be outside with my family all day, doing things together," he said.
Combat Medic-Turned-FarmerWorking side-by-side with the Holloways on the VFNC is Lizzie Hubbard.
Hubbard is from Texas, where she and her four sisters grew up on two acres with cows, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Her mother was from Pennsylvania and had a green thumb, so she was able to successfully grow plants, even though the Texas climate and landscape weren’t always conducive to it.
A few years after college, at age 24, Hubbard joined the Army as a combat medic. In Iraq and Afghanistan, she was in the thick of it.
"My unit has been on I.R.F. [Immediate Response Force] the entire time I’ve been there, which means that we’ve deployed on eight-hour notice three times, including the most recent Afghanistan deployment to remove refugees," she told The Epoch Times.
"As a medic and then a senior medic in my unit, there’s a lot of responsibility that you carry for the wellbeing of your guys if things don’t go well for them," Hubbard said. "It can be hard to get over it."
She spoke of "moral challenges" that occur on deployments, and as a senior medic, she was the only person "actually permitted to speak in a moral sense when you don’t have a lot of rank," adding that responsibility "has a lot of challenges that come with it as well."
Now, Hubbard is in a three-month transition program, which she’s executing on-site at the VFNC.
At first, she wasn’t sure she had enough agricultural experience to be a successful farmer, but after a month of working with Elliott, she feels confident enough to pursue setting up a flower farm in Massachusetts, which she’s planning to open in November.
Like Holloway and others in the VFNC programs, Hubbard has found farming to be therapeutic.
Parnell AcresRay Parnell was born in 1970. "I grew up in rural North Carolina. My grandfather was a farmer," he told The Epoch Times.
After school, on weekends, and during the summers, he’d work the farm alongside his family.
Then, Parnell joined the army at age 18 and had a 22-year career.
While he was never suicidal after returning to civilian life in 2010, Parnell did say this: "After you’ve been in the military and you’ve done some of the things that we do in the military and we go through, some of the problems of the civilian population just don’t seem that significant. So we have a hard time relating to people who have not shared that military journey."
During his time in the service, Parnell lived in a wide variety of areas and housing, including apartments in the suburbs. But after he retired, his rural roots called him back.
"I always knew I wanted to live in the country; I always knew I wanted to own land," he said. "About three years ago, I decided I was going to start farming."
In a common scenario, after his grandfather died, Parnell’s mother and her siblings had sold off the farm in pieces, so Parnell had to find a new piece of land to call his own. He purchased his new farm last December and dubbed it Parnell Acres.
Prior to this, Parnell bumped into a Marine veteran at the Farm Service Agency who told him about Elliott’s classes. Parnell spoke with Elliott for about 15 minutes and signed up for an earlier version of one of his programs.
"The organization of the lessons—that stems from Robert’s background in the military," Parnell said. "Very structured, very organized, and I think that’s something a veteran can relate to."
The programs set up a future network among the students. One of Parnell’s classmates owns a farm in Guilford, New York; he’s bought her hay and she’s bought his pumpkins.
But it’s not just professional relationships that start; it’s also a support network among veterans.
Parnell summed up the objective of the VFNC this way: "The whole point behind it is not just a conduit for people that have an interest in farming to be able to farm, it’s also a brotherhood and a sisterhood of like-minded people that have had some shared experiences."
As for Elliott, this is exactly the kind of network he was lacking when he was transitioning back to civilian life. "I had no idea that I would be doing something like this," he said. "This is 100 percent my calling. I see it now."