“I was more or less a Neanderthal — everyone was scared of me,” he said. “I have a problem with people. Period.”
But when he speaks of this year’s harvest at the center’s vegetable gardens — the tomatoes and eggplant, lettuce and kale, basil, squash, corn, peppers, collard greens and the rest, he sounds like someone who, in a way he never expected, has found a measure of peace.
“When I got here I was completely isolated,” said Mr. Mourning, 58, who has started his own company, Cobra Landscaping, as a result of his experience. “But being with the plants gives me time to think and meditate, to feel the soil or clay or whatever you’re working in. I talk to my plants. Maybe it’s crazy, but it’s given me a chance to get out, work with others, grow something and do something that’s right, not just for myself, but for the whole community.”
It’s not as if the center, the hub of the Veteran Affairs New Jersey health care system, which treats 60,000 veterans a year, has turned into something for New Age warriors out of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” But in the season of too much — stress, food, expectations — many veterans here are contemplating the soil they tilled, the vegetables and herbs they grew, and what they have learned about just enough.
In truth, Veterans Affairs has undergone something of a greening in recent years. The medical center here is proud of its affiliation with the Planetreeorganization, a nonprofit network that offers a patient-centered, holistic approach to health care. And one result of that approach over the past year was something quite simple — the recognition that by learning to grow food for one another, veterans might learn a good deal more.
It began with Jan Zientek, who specializes in urban gardening with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Roseland, and Thurston Mangrum, a 70-year-old Air Force veteran, who was in a substance abuse treatment program at the medical center.
Five years ago, Mr. Mangrum took a course that Mr. Zientek taught to residents of the Newark Housing Authority and later joined its master gardener program.
Mr. Mangrum figured, even with severe limitations of space, why not do something similar at the medical center? The veterans did some landscaping and ground work and then began tilling 20-by-50-foot plots between the buildings that had been converted from grass to raised vegetable beds.
This summer, veterans harvested more than 1,000 pounds of produce, which was given to other patients at the center and also used at the Foxhole Cafe at the veterans’ medical center in Lyons. Using hoop houses covered by plastic tarp, they grow crops like kale and collard greens well into the winter. There will be more crops next year, with thoughts of perhaps finding ways to sell them at farmers’ markets.
For many of the veterans, the experience has been less about growing food and more about learning about themselves. So Mr. Mourning has felt a special kinship with Josh Urban, a 30-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He had also found himself isolated, unable to fully reintegrate into the world outside the war zone, until tilling the soil with his fellow veterans helped him make his peace with life back home.
Patrick Corcoran, who served with the Marines in Lebanon, said: “It just lowers the volume in my head. It allows me to think on a rational level.”
With two protracted wars at a time when military suicides are at record levels, with psychic and physical damage on a scale threatening to swamp the veterans’ system, an urban garden at one medical center gets you only so far. Mr. Mourning shudders at today’s multiple tours of duty and thinks veterans desperately need a job corps for training and finding work.
Still, if it’s a blip on the big picture, the program has been a godsend for the veterans here. “It’s been my salvation,” Mr. Mangrum said. Which is why on Thanksgiving, he brought home some of the last of this year’s garden — the winter parsley and basil, collard greens and turnip greens — and on Thursday, in the most personal of ways, gave thanks.