If I hadn't known better I'd have thought it was just another early morning of basil picking in the hothouse at Archi's Acres Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) in rural San Diego County. But it wasn't just another morning. There was none of the usual good natured bantering I'd seen in the past; the veterans were grim-faced and tense, and they'd shown up for work despite the fact that the VA had pulled their funding from the program and there was no money to pay their wages.
"I'm here because it's harvest day and there's a heck of a lot of basil to be harvested and delivered. This program has given me so much and I'm not about to turn my back on them," said Rod, a Vietnam era veteran and former Navy Corpsman, when I asked him why he'd come to work without pay. "Because of Archi's Acres I've been able to have a normal life again and move into my own apartment." Before coming to Archi's Acres just over a year ago, he'd spent four years on narcotics and bed rest for back pain; he had become homeless and unable to support himself. I'd met Rod on other occasions and noticed how he always seemed to be smiling while he worked. He wasn't smiling now.
The two Iraq veterans, Carlos and Corey were there too. They both have that look that many young combat veterans have: too young to have seen the things they've seen and old beyond their years because of it. Because of their post traumatic stress issues they were referred by the VA San Diego Healthcare System to Archis Acres, as much for its peaceful therapeutic environment as its training and employment opportunities.
"It's more than a job," said Carlos when I asked him why he was prepared to work without pay. "This is the first time I've felt safe since I got back from Iraq." In 2008 Carlos moved to Arizona where he worked as an apprentice electrician, but "the fast pace, loud noises and hot weather" made his PTSD symptoms worsen. He returned to San Diego and went to the VA for help. They referred him to Archi's Acres. In the eight months he's been at the program, he says his anxiety, mood swings and sleep problems have substantially lessened.
"In Iraq I saw a lot of dying," he says. "It's a different feeling of accomplishment when you're watching something grow with life out of your own hands and not die from your trigger finger."
I asked Carlos what he'd do if the program closed for lack of funding. He drew a deep breath then looked away. "I'll have to find another job. But it's bad timing. I just got married and we're having a baby this summer. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Jeff also showed up for harvest day. We talked while he picked huge, glossy green bunches of basil. A former Army Ranger with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Jeff served in the Gulf War and has suffered from PTSD for years, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. "I have serious substance abuse issues. Being here literally keeps me sober. And it feels really good to be contributing, helping other veterans, giving back." A few months ago Jeff took a short leave from the program, but his clinician at the VA recommended that he return, saying Jeff responded to the environment and the nature of the work more than he had to any other form of therapy or medication.
Archi's Acres was founded by Sgt. Colin Archipley and his wife Karen, after Colin returned from three combat tours in Iraq with PTSD, a set of leadership skills he'd acquired in the Marine Corps and a desire to help other veterans who were finding it difficult to re-adjust to civilian life. They bought their farm just before his third tour and about three years ago formed a partnership with the VA San Diego Healthcare System (VASDHS) to provide a Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program, training veterans in a farming technique called bio-hydroponics.
The VA started out paying the veterans in the program an hourly wage for 40 hours a week, then eight months ago the agreement changed so Archi's Acres would reimburse the VA for 50 percent of that amount. On February 26 2010, the Archipleys received a letter from Jeffery Scanlon, CWT Manager at the VA Wellness and Enrichment Clinic, who helped pilot the program and who works closely with each of the veterans at Archi's Acres. He said he'd requested additional support from the VA Affairs Central Office so the program could continue to grow and serve more veterans who'd reached out to them. He was told the "fund control point" was inappropriately being used and as of March 5, 2010 Archi's Acres would have to provide 100 percent of the hourly pay to the veterans.
With the 50/50 split, the VA and Archi's Acres had each been paying eight veterans $8,000.00 a month. Now the $16,000.00 burden of payment would fall entirely on the Archipleys who do not have the means to pay it. And eight veterans who struggled with chronic unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse and a pervading sense of hopelessness before coming to Archi's Acres would be thrown back into survival mode.
Why would the VA do this? Does Archis Acres really help veterans with PTSD move forward in their lives by providing training, employment and a therapeutic environment? If so, why has the program been cut? And how were funds being inappropriately used? I asked Dr. Robert Smith, Chief of Staff/Medical Director of the San Diego VA Healthcare System these questions on Friday April 9. It had been just over a month since the VA had pulled its funding.
Dr. Smith was enthusiastic in his support for Archi's Acres. He told me he'd visited the farm the previous week and praised its unique environment. "It certainly appears to be of value to the participating veterans, and the skills they have been able to learn, in growing and hydroponics, provide them with important life and vocational skills for the future. We need to find a way we can support what I think is a valuable relationship," he said.
He added how impressed he was with the Archipley's dedication - to the veterans they're been able to help and to maintaining a therapeutic environment.
Still confused, I asked why, if the pilot program was such a success, had the VA pulled its funding. Dr. Smith that paying the salaries of veterans in a CWT program is not in compliance with the regulations. CWT funds should be used for training purposes but not for salaries, he said. The hope, he said, is to "create a variety of relationships with Archi's Acres, to be able to transition the CWT program into a normal CWT program where Archi's Acres... will be able to pay their full share of the wages."
More baffled than ever, I asked Dr. Smith whether Archi's Acres does indeed provide training to the veterans.
He confirmed again that they do. "The problem is what we're allowed to do legally and how we can have the veterans participate in that training and get the benefit from it but not be in a position where we're using government funds to subsidize employees at a commercial entity."
He suggested that one way Archi's Acres might be able to pay the veterans would be to decrease the number of veterans they serve. "It's about what the right number of employees they can support in an employment model as opposed to the number of individuals that we might be able to support in a training or perhaps therapeutic environment model."
As he spoke about employment models vs. training models vs. therapeutic environment models I thought about the email from the sister of an Iraq veteran I'd read at the Archipleys the week before. "Please can my brother come to your farm. I worry about him more every day. I am scared I am going to lose him if something doesn't change soon..."
The problem with bureaucracy is that not only humanity but logic often ceases to exist. The unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars reached 14.7 percent in March, according to the latest government statistics. The number of unemployed veterans increased to more than 250,000 in March, up about 40,000 over the previous month's figures. There are 107,000 homeless veterans on the streets of America on any given night and over twice that many experience homelessness over the course of a year. The suicide rate of veterans is more than twice that of non-vets and 20 to 24- year-olds who have served in the war on terror have the highest suicide rate of all veterans, according to a 2007 CBS news investigation.
Colin and Karen Archipley aren't getting much sleep these days. They spend their days farming and trying to scramble for money for "their guys" and their nights worrying about the eight men who have come to depend on them for their emotional, physical and financial stability. When they received a donation of $8,000.00 from Service Disabled Veteran Owned Business, they gave the veterans $1,000.00 each to help with rent and food expenses.
"These are proud men. It hurts to see them thrown into this desperate situation," Karen said. "Jeff has stepped into a leadership position with us. Carlos wants a career in agriculture. We had plans to grow and have them grow with us."
When I asked Dr. Smith how long it would take to come up with a new contract with Archi's Acres, he said they hoped to have it within 90 days. He also said the VA cares about the wellbeing of the veterans at Archis Arces.
The veterans at Archi's Acres are not feeling that the VA cares about them. They are feeling abandoned and betrayed and two of the men told me they are avoiding going to the VA for their mental health appointments. Carlos' mood swings have returned and he's staying away from his pregnant wife.
I have been diagnosed with major depression and bi-polar after five suicide attempts, including one where they put me on life support. I was recently incarcerated for five months. When I got out I had no-where to go. I couldn't find a job. No one would hire me. Since I have been here I have not been suicidal. If not for this program I would either be on the street or dead. It would be a crime against the deserving vets if this program was to fail.
The Archipleys haven't heard from Donald for over a week.