Jonathan Jackson had all the makings of another statistic. In 2013, after being refused deployment by the Army because of physical complications arising from his traumatic brain injury, Jackson found himself at the mercy of the invisible wounds so many combat veterans bring home from the battlefield. And those invisible wounds were preparing to take his life.
The Department of Veterans Affairs lists some alarming statistics. According to an internal survey, 29 percent of combat veterans who served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have reported experiencing, in varying degrees of severity, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An even more alarming statistic shows that veterans commit suicide at a rate 1.5 times higher than the civilian population. These are stats Jackson knew all too well, having watched many of his fellow soldiers suffer and end their lives in suicide.
Jackson had served his country proudly for over 11 years. A former Army Ranger, he experienced more death across his six tours of duty than most will experience in a lifetime. Returning home from that is never easy.
The toll of lost friends, of feeling disconnected from service and society, and the prospect of losing family weighed on Jackson as he was moments away from pulling the trigger. But he didn’t. For at that moment, his young son entered the room to inquire about dinner.
“I knew then that I had to crawl out of this dark hole I was in. I knew I needed to do something bigger than myself,” Jackson said. “Being a Ranger was about more than just being tough. It was about finding that strength in you when you don’t have any left to give.”
So Jackson went to work. Pulling money from his medical pension and a generous bank loan, Jackson founded the nonprofit organization known as STAG Vets, Inc. Jackson had a bold vision. He wanted an organization that would do more than just slap on a band-aid. A place that would dig deep into healing. A place for the veterans, like himself, suffering from the invisible wounds of war. So he started a farm.
A New BattlegroundThe first program Jackson created under the STAG Vets banner was Comfort Farms, an “Acute Veterans Crisis Agriculture Center” founded in 2014 in Milledgeville, Georgia. Jackson named the farm in honor of his friend, United States Army Airborne Ranger Captain Kyle A. Comfort, who was killed in action in 2010.
Though it may seem ironic, to Jackson, the power of the farm lies in its comparison to war.
“The farm is a perfect battleground,” he said.
As in combat, flexibility and resourcefulness are required in order to achieve success in a place where everything could descend into chaos at a moment's notice. Pigs escape. Equipment fails. Chickens run amok in the garden. Livestock is set upon by predators. The nature of the farm brings out in Jackson the same feelings he had as a warrior.
“You’re trying to use all your senses. You have to be flexible,” Jackson said. “But I enjoy the challenge. It forces me to be optimistic.”
Far more than an agricultural enterprise, the 35-acre farm has a covert curriculum, one that cannot be taught in any classroom.
So many veterans struggle with connectivity, because they’re returning from an environment of violence and horror that very few can remotely begin to understand. They struggle to connect with their families, their friends, and even complete strangers. As a result, they feel utterly alone.
“Working on the farm is a great connector,” Jackson said. He describes it in an anecdote about raising pigs: “You raise a sow and you come to care for her. Then the sow has babies, and you begin to care for them. It feels great.”
Then the sadness comes. The act of butchering serves a dual purpose: Sustenance is provided by the meat, but the veteran needs to let go of that beloved animal. In doing so, they can remember that they can feel those feelings of love and sadness. They remember that they have that ability to connect. They remember that they are not alone.
“We’re building bridges back to that behavior. We’re conditioning vets to be humans again, and building those bridges back to being better civilians.”
“It’s a self-guided process,” said Jackson. “I’m gonna be there for [them] and have the farm absorb some of the trauma they’ve had. The first step toward helping is having vets take ownership.”
Success StoriesComfort Farms has been met with resounding support and success. Thanks to generous funding from USDA grants, all workshops put on at the farm are free and open to public attendance. A collaboration with Central Georgia Technical College has brought about the Sustainable Small Farm and Agriculture Technician Program, a technical certificate course that focuses on production, management, and marketing for small-scale farms. The land for the program is provided by STAG Vets and Fort Valley State University. Thoroughly vetted veterans in true crisis can stay at Comfort Farms after referral to the VA, thanks to the generous donation of two lodgings from the Georgia Manufactured Housing Association.
As a result of their stay at Comfort Farms, several veterans have gone on to start their own agricultural enterprises in their own home states, a fact Jackson takes great pride in. Others have used the farm to find their way back toward service.
Looking to the Past to Build the FutureAlongside its noble mission, Comfort Farms is still an agricultural operation, dedicated to feeding its community. The farm specializes in raising heritage breed turkeys, rabbits, pigs, chickens, and fish, and grows a wide variety of heirloom vegetables, sold via a weekend farmers market and associations with several local restaurants. The farm is also working toward developing its very own pig and chicken breeds, and building a library of heirloom vegetables.
Heritage breeds and heirloom vegetables are a particularly important, personal mission for Jackson, as he has been increasingly drawn to exploring his heritage through food.
“Heritage breeds carry the DNA that has been passed down through the generations. It's the artwork of the first developer; a fingerprint of a culture,” Jackson said. “I’m descended from the freed slaves on my mom’s side, but there is very little I know about them. But even though I don’t know these people, I can go back and look at the seeds and figure out what they ate, what they did to survive.”
Taking a broader view into account, Jackson is taking the opportunity traveling has presented him to shed light on the cooking of other cultures. Just recently, he has gone from the Colombian/Venezuelan Amazon cooking piranha with the Puinave Indigenous people, to South Dakota hunting for Merriam’s turkey and cooking up prairie dogs with the Lakota.
But the work at Comfort Farms is far from over. Looking to the future, Jackson sees nothing but potential. He’s hard at work developing a disaster preparedness program, with a specific focus on helping small family farms rebuild in the aftermath of natural, or man-made, disasters.
“Small farms are the backbone of communities. We’re going to spearhead this mission with vets who want to serve again,” Jackson said.
The STAG in STAG Vets stands for "Strength To Achieve Greatness." What that strength looks like is a diverse kaleidoscope of veterans who arrive suffering and leave renewed. Jackson’s own strength lies in the work he’s put into his own healing: He’s reconnected with his family, provided a farm for his community, and is reintegrating veterans back into civilian life. It’s a noble goal, one that Jackson is exceptionally well-suited for.