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Veterans recover from war's wounds on the farm

A program that teaches agribusiness to retired soldiers provides a fresh start for vets seeking a new career. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

By Gene Choo
NBC News

ESCONDIDO - On a sunny, crisp January morning in Southern California, 16 young veterans gathered to learn the finer points of organic farming: how to brew "compost tea" (an organic liquid fertilizer), irrigation, planting techniques and urban crop production.

As they pounded freshly ground compost in a plastic container, one of the students, Anthony Rohrbaugh, stopped to adjust his wool beanie. Rohrbaugh, 27, had completed two deployments with the Marines to Iraq where he fought in the Battle of Fallujah. He credits the farm’s program, Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT), for helping him deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and transitioning back to civilian life.

"Coming out of the military, it's kinda like a shock," Rohrbaugh said. "[VSAT] is very therapeutic …coming from a combat environment -- I was under a lot of stress. And I suffered from brain trauma. Working with plants and soil really helped me connect not only to myself but also the environment around me."

VSAT, founded by Colin Archipley and his wife Karen, has taught agribusiness skills to more than 60 veterans since it was first established in 2006. These vets are all still working in the agriculture and farm industry.

"The military community has such great talents and work ethic," he said. "And it's not being realized once they leave the military."

Archipley, 30, should know. As a decorated Marine sergeant with multiple combat tours in Iraq, he grew increasingly frustrated with the number of fellow warriors who had honorably served their country only to come home to a nation lacking in opportunities and a coherent strategy to re-integrate these vets back into society.

"They are so much more than just trigger pullers," Archipley said, gesturing to a group of students learning about bioponic farming, an organic method of sustainable farming that recycles water using high-tech greenhouses. "If the American public knew how good these guys are-- I mean, they were in charge of millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment and leading men in the most extreme environments under massive stress."

At the end of VSAT’s six-week "full impact" training course on the six acre farm known as Archi's Acres, each student must come up with a viable business plan as to how they will utilize their new skills.

Decorated Marine Mike Hanes, a graduate of Archi's Acres, now owns his own hot sauce company. He told NBC News about the challenges he faced after coming home from the frontlines. 

"VSAT's idea is to train returning combat vets in agribusiness skills. We want to be an agribusiness incubator that allows these vets to create small businesses across the U.S.," Archipley said. "This not only helps them get back on their feet and make a living, it also contributes to the well-being of our country. It allows them to be a part of something bigger than themselves again."

It's an idea that has taken root across the country with similar programs sprouting up in San Antonio, Texas and Boston, Mass. With more farmers retiring than entering the profession, America's agriculture industry is looking for fresh recruits. According to a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, nearly 66 percent of small farm operators are over 55 years old and only 4.1 percent are younger than 35 years old. The USDA estimates about a million new farmers are needed over the next 10 years.

"We need this program and other programs like it to create food in this country,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “The risk is, if we can't produce our own food, we'll be more dependent on importing food."

Coming home after combat: ‘We really struggled’

The journey from dusty Fallujah, Iraq to sunny Escondido, Calif., was a rough one for Colin Archipley. After three combat tours where he experienced some of the war's most brutal battles, Archipley said he felt lost and out of place upon leaving the Marine Corps in 2006 .

"I didn't have a mission anymore and everything I did in the military was mission driven," said Archipley, who suffers from PTSD. "Job opportunities when I got out were few and far between and the skills I learned as an infantryman didn't always translate directly into civilian life."

Getting the proper medical treatment also proved challenging.

"Colin had a lot of stuff from coming back from war," Karen Archipley said. "There were big issues with health and trying to get proper healthcare. We really struggled."

Archipley recalled, "Here you were, living in a ditch, getting shot at and making all these sacrifices and people here didn't even know anything about it.  It brought a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. I had to find an outlet, something I could engage in that was bigger than myself."

In 2006, he found that outlet via Karen's lifelong dream: to live on (and own) a farm. Originally, she had wanted to settle in the idyllic Italian countryside of Tuscany. But after spending so much time abroad, Colin wanted to stay at home.

By trading mortgages on Karen's home in Los Angeles, they bought a fixer-upper avocado farm in Escondido about 30 minutes north of San Diego on a bluff overlooking Camp Pendleton, a major Marine Corps base. Here, the young couple created Archi's Acres -- an organic hyrdoponic farm that was environmentally safe using 90 percent less water than a comparable conventional farm. They expanded their produce from avocados to kale, lettuce, and their signature product, basil.

But Archi's Acres was more than just a profitable source of income. Colin found solace in the soil and the farm's tranquil surroundings.

"The farm gave me a mission statement," Archipley said. "It allowed us to feel good at the end of the day-- we were helping to feed America."

Colin also wanted to give back to his fellow Marines and service members -- even more so now, after a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study that reported an unemployment rate of over 30 percent for veterans ages 18 to 24, double the comparable civilian rate.

"These guys were heroes and they were falling through the cracks when they came home," said Archipley. Loyal to his brothers (and sisters) in arms, Archipley and his wife, Karen, decided to take action and created VSAT by securing grant money from the Disabled American Veterans, a non-profit veterans organization through Mira Costa Community College where VSAT's curriculum is accredited and part of the school's agriculture program.

Success story: Mike Hanes, once homeless, finds his calling

One of the program's most memorable graduates is 36-year-old Mike Hanes, a highly decorated Force Reconnaissance Marine who had spent more than eight years engaging in hazardous special operations missions on the distant battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon coming home, Haines said he suffered from depression, a classic symptom of PTSD triggered by a traumatic brain injury sustained in combat.

"I had major anger issues. They were off the charts," Hanes said.

Unable to secure a job, Hanes became homeless for two years.

"I would avoid populated areas and go into the hills where I would find the thickest brush and camp out,” he said. “I would hear voices and animals at night -- it was scary at times. As a Recon Marine, I was used to sleeping with one eye open.”

When his wife divorced him and sought sole custody of his young daughter, Hanes said he knew he had to turn his life around: if not for him, then for his daughter.

While homeless, he enrolled himself in college and got his degree. One day in April 2009 , while walking through Balboa Park in San Diego, he stumbled upon an Earth Day Festival and came upon Archipley's VSAT booth. Hanes liked what he heard -- especially the words of encouragement coming from a fellow combat vet Marine. "But it took him nearly a year to actually come to the program," said Karen Archipley. "He really had trust issues."

"The farm definitely changed the direction of my life," said Hanes. "I mean, if it wasn't for the farm -- I honestly don't know where I would be right now."

After attending the VSAT course, Hanes came up with a business plan to bottle and market his own brand of hot sauce: Forager Mike's Dang!!! Raw Superfood Sauce. The concoction was so good that local Whole Foods grocery stores now stock it on their shelves.

"I never would have thought this would have happened," Hanes said. "I never thought -- sleeping out in the bush, being homeless -- I would have a product there sitting on a shelf in a store!"

Now, as a single father who runs his own company, "When I take my daughter to Whole Foods and I share with her my creation -- she looked up there on the shelves and see my picture next to the bottles and says, 'Hey! That's you!' You know, that definitely brought a smile to my face," said Hanes, his face lighting up. "Made me feel proud again, you know."

For Colin Archipley, that’s what VSAT is all about.

"If we can just help one person be better off than he was before -- then mission accomplished," he said.