by Alison Perry of Bend, OR
Alison Perry is a Licensed Professional Counselor who began working with veterans in 2005 at the Portland VA Medical Center, two years after her brother deployed for the invasion of Iraq as an Apache helicopter pilot. Her grandfather was a career Air Force C-130 pilot and instructor, and her nephew recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. Her brother is still in active duty Army and completed two more tours in Iraq as a MEDEVAC pilot. Ms. Perry worked as a clinical counselor for the Department of Veterans Affairs for six years, including three years at the Bend VA Clinic in Central Oregon, where her passion for the needs of rural veterans and inspiration for Central Oregon Veterans Ranch developed.
I am not a farmer. I did not grow up on a farm though I grew up in dairy country, about 45 minutes southeast of Atlanta, GA. One of my earliest childhood memories is a field trip to Mathis Dairy and an opportunity to try our luck milking a cow. I recall being terrified of squeezing anything on such a large beast, much less those most vulnerable parts, but I loved the smell and feel of being on the farm. I was not afraid of horses, and loved time spent with girlfriends riding and grooming horses, or sometimes just hanging out in the old barn watching hay particles drift in the warm Georgia sun. There was something magical about these “other worlds”; farm life had its own rhythm and time, so different than the hectic pace of work and school schedules. My young adult life led me somewhat away from these natural wonders, though the memories stayed, and the pursuit of living closer to rural life returned and strongly influenced my personal and professional path, and the vision of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch.
In 2000 I moved from Georgia to Oregon. Atlanta’s urban growth had skyrocketed after the Olympics in 1994 and the song “Pave Paradise and put up a parking lot” was a reality in what used to be a very green and charming neighborhood city. The pursuit of graduate school and stories from friends who had traveled around the U.S. lead me to Portland, Oregon.
I began graduate school in 2001, one month after September 11th. My brother, then an Apache helicopter pilot, had just left for a year-long tour of duty in Korea. He, like almost everyone else serving in the military at that time, was chomping at the bit to go to the Middle East and confront the source of the attack. Two years later he would get his chance as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq. In February of 2003 my brother deployed to the Middle East. In April he crossed the berm into Iraq to support ground troops for the invasion. This was the beginning of the journey as a military family member what would develop into a career and a calling.
In 2005 I began working for the VA at the Portland VA Medical Center. Being from the south and a pro-military family and culture, I felt isolated in my experience as military family member in Portland, and quickly adapted to the para-military culture of the Medical Center. Thus began a six year career with the VA, serving the general mental health population and specializing in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and combat trauma. I was surprised at the beginning of my career to not only be working with veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Vietnam veterans coming in and sharing their stories for the first time in 40 years. I was moved by the range of experiences and suffering of veterans of all ages and eras, wars and conflicts ranging from WWII to Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Haiti, the Balkans, Somalia and every other major engagement of the U.S. military.
During this time there was one case in particular that struck me and planted the seed for the vision of a ranch for veterans. A social work colleague of mine and I were working with a young veteran who had essentially been forced into the military at age 17 by his family. He had deployed to Iraq, and upon returning home to Oregon was drugged and sexually assaulted by his combat buddy at a party. Shortly after we began working with him he had his first psychotic “break” and was diagnosed with paranoid-schizophrenia. For all he had been through, this young man still seemed somewhat “normal” to me; very young, but a human being who was suffering, not merely a diagnosis or a disorder. A few months into working with him my colleague and I learned that he had been admitted to the VA’s psychiatric ward and had “blown up”; was throwing furniture and threatening staff. My immediate reaction was to consider how the environment he had been locked up in – fluorescent lights, white walls, being poked, prodded and diagnosed – was impacting him. I looked at my colleague, “Darla, I wish we had a sheep ranch out east where we could send these guys… where they could work on the land, sleep out under the stars, and be around other veterans…” Within a year of that experience I was working at the Bend VA Clinic in Central Oregon, the vision of a “sheep ranch” tucked away somewhere in my mind.
I arrived at the Bend VA Clinic at the end of 2007 and quickly learned that rural veterans were a different breed than urban veterans. For one, availability and access to services was more limited than in urban areas, often contributing to more chronic conditions. Many of the veterans I worked with in Central Oregon had left the Valley after their return home from Vietnam, to live a life more closely aligned with nature than with cities and dense populations of people. Rural veterans gravitated naturally towards more organic forms of healing; the outdoors, animals, community. I began working with a predominately older population of veterans, as compared to the primarily GWOT (Global War on Terror) veterans I had worked with on the PTSD Clinical Team in Portland.
Five months after coming to the Bend clinic I took over four groups comprised of mostly Vietnam veterans. One group was twenty guys. It was through working with and being welcomed into this community that I began to get interested in end of life care for veterans. I saw that despite the treatment of the modern medical model, many of these veterans had not yet obtained peace, within themselves or with others. I observed that what seemed most important – and healing – to them was the sense of camaraderie they experienced each week when they met. To my sadness, I began to lose Vietnam veterans to early deaths; alcoholism, agent-orange related cancers, heart and other health problems, and even suicide. I learned that more Vietnam veterans had died to suicide than had died in the war. I was deeply saddened by the suffering these veterans had endured for years, and wondered how I could help those still living find peace in the latter half of their lives and in their final days. I started to hear themes when these veterans spoke about death and dying. Many said they were not afraid of death – more so of the dying process – and that they did not want to be around people, some even their own families, at the time of their death. They wanted to “go off into the woods like the Native Americans and die alone.” The seed that had been planted in me – the vision of a ranch for veterans – returned.
Over the next couple of years the vision for the ranch became clearer, and the intention to create a “sanctuary” for veterans stronger. In 2012 I left the VA and began the journey towards making the vision a reality, taking jobs that gave me experience with government grants and contracts, and nonprofit management. In 2013 I pulled together an Advisory Board, and in 2014 Central Oregon Veterans Ranch (COVR) received its federal 501(c)3 tax exempt nonprofit status and established a Board of Directors. The team is now 14 plus volunteers with grants in process and the organization is working with a private investor to close on a 19- acre property between Bend and Redmond.
The mission of Central Oregon Veterans Ranch is “A working ranch that restores purpose and spirit to veterans of all ages.” The vision is to provide learning and volunteer opportunities in sustainable agriculture to veterans of all ages and eras from the broader community, and supportive housing on the property for up to five veterans who are terminally ill or at end of life. The ranch will be a hub; a physical place that will foster community, camaraderie, and healing among various generations of veterans.
COVR’s agricultural goals are to develop and maintain gardens and to raise a heritage breed of sheep called the Navajo Churro. The organization has developed rapport with multiple Churro breeders in the state of Oregon, including a female Iraq combat veteran in Scio at Dot Ranch Churros. Widespread support for the ranch vision has grown since a local newspaper article appeared and a presentation at the High Desert Food & Farm Summit in October. Organizations like High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, OSU Extension Service, and Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council are eager to partner with COVR once the ranch is established to offer classes and workshops for veterans.
The ranch property has a four bedroom home which will be remodeled and established as an Adult Foster Home, providing supportive housing for up to five veterans who are terminally ill or close to end of life. A resident manager will live in the home and part-time caregivers will be employed. The ranch and agricultural operations will be developed and maintained by veterans and civilian volunteers in conjunction with community partners, and eventually a paid operations manager. Classes and volunteer opportunities for veterans of all ages from the larger community will be offered at the ranch. The organization hopes to provide a vehicle for veterans to connect to the larger community, and opportunities for service (growing and donating food) and a strengthened sense of purpose and identity through maintenance of the ranch.
This is an innovative approach to healing veterans and creating community for them. We hope to serve as a model for other communities in finding creative ways to help our vets.