By KEN PICARD
Jon Turner sits on a sunlit deck at his hilltop home in Bristol and watches his 4-year-old son chase a duck around a large solar tracker. The boy lunges repeatedly for the waddling waterfowl but can’t quite grasp it with his tiny, outstretched hands.
“That’s Bob,” Turner says, referring to the duck. “He plays with the kids.”
The bucolic scene unfolds outside of Turner’s 700-square-foot yurt, where he lives with his wife, Cathy, and their two sons. The round house, which Turner built himself about a year and a half ago, is surprisingly roomy inside, with a full bathroom, kitchen and sleeping loft. It has running water and a woodstove.
Surrounding the yurt are vegetable gardens, hoop houses, a rabbit hutch and chicken coops. The rabbits are pets, Turner explains, but the chickens will feed the family through the winter. Until they’re slaughtered, they serve another function. Twice a day, Turner rotates the chicken coops around the yard to control pests and aerate and fertilize the soil. The impact is evident in the strips of taller, greener grass that grow wherever the coops have been.
Beyond the garden are rows of saplings that Turner planted along the hillside to control erosion and fix nitrogen in the soil. In all, Turner says he’s planted about 200 trees and bushes this year alone, from oaks to elderberries. Each was chosen with a specific purpose in mind — food, windbreak, firewood or forage for wildlife.
Here on this idyllic, 10.5-acre homestead, dubbed Wild Roots Farm Vermont, Turner has finally found something that eluded him for years: peace of mind and a renewed sense of purpose.
“Gardening and farming for me has turned into a spiritual practice,” explains the 32-year-old retired U.S. Marine and Iraq War veteran. “If things are absolutely berserk in my mind, it’s easy for me to go out and pull a couple of weeds.”
Until about eight years ago, the Vernon, Conn., native had never planted a seed nor hoed a garden. Today, he’s unequivocal about the impact that farming has had on him: “It saved my life, man.”
Now, Turner eagerly shares his passion for sustainable agriculture with others, especially fellow veterans, with the hope that it will improve their lives, too. Three years ago, he helped found the Vermont chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national nonprofit dedicated to cultivating a new crop of farmers from the ranks of former members of the military.
Turner routinely opens his farm to veterans, schoolchildren, college students and others who are interested in learning about organic gardening, permaculture and small-scale diversified farming. Part retreat and part educational workshop, Wild Roots isn’t a true production farm, Turner explains, though it sells and donates some of its produce to local restaurants and schools.
“I know what farming and working with the soil has done for me,” he explains. “And I can see the impact on other people’s health and well-being.”
Turner, who has a scruffy beard, shoulder-length dirty-blond hair and forearms covered in tattoos, has come a long way since this reporter first met him in March 2008 during an antiwar forum at the University of Vermont. There, he and other Iraq and Afghanistan vets recounted painful and often horrific stories from their time in combat.
Between 2004 and 2007, Turner was deployed three times — once to Haiti and twice to Iraq. In August 2006, during his final deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, a mortar blast outside his barracks sent shrapnel into his jaw, missing his carotid artery by an eighth of an inch. The impact caused a traumatic brain injury. Fourteen hours later, while en route back to base, Turner was riding in a truck that was hit by an improvised explosive device, which inflicted a second TBI.
Turner doesn’t shy away from discussing his deployments, but he says he’s no longer the angry and bitter young man he was after returning from overseas. At the time, he hadn’t yet come to terms with the enduring effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder and TBIs.
“I’ve been back for 10 years and two weeks,” Turner says, marking the time since his honorable discharge like an alcoholic counting the days, months and years of sustained sobriety.
It’s an apt analogy. For years after leaving the service, Turner struggled with alcoholism and addiction to what he calls the “ridiculous” number of pills he was prescribed for pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Today, Turner says he’s off them all. He doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs or take prescription meds. As he puts it, “It made it difficult, but I was determined not to put myself in the grave when I got home.”
Many of his brothers in arms weren’t as fortunate. Last year, three of his buddies took their own lives; this year, two did. Such hidden casualties of war are consistent with data released in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which found that veterans ages 18 to 29 are six times more likely than their civilian counterparts to commit suicide. Nationally, veterans are now taking their own lives at a rate of about 20 per day.
“It’s few and far between that people go off to war with a good head on their shoulders and come back with an even better one,” Turner says. “A lot of the reason vets take their own life is that they don’t have a sense of service anymore. When you’re at war, you know what you’re doing. Man or woman, whatever your job was, everything was mission oriented.”
Turner himself struggled to find a sense of purpose after returning stateside. For a brief time, he enrolled at Green Mountain College to study renewable energy and ecological design, then he switched to sustainable agriculture. But Turner quickly realized that college wasn’t for him.
“Two weeks into my second semester, I was done,’ he says. “I was a 26-year-old freshman and couldn’t be in a classroom with these kids who didn’t understand life. It was very difficult.”
Next, Turner tried his hand at art and poetry, including a poem titled “The Bicycle” about his first confirmed kill in combat. He also participated in the Combat Paper Project, in which vets used their shredded military uniforms to make paper. The project, founded by fellow Iraq War vets Drew Cameron and Drew Matott, was based for years at the now-defunct Green Door Studio in Burlington’s South End. It toured the country presenting workshops to help other vets come to grips with the horrors of war.
In February 2009, while preparing for an exhibit at Burlington City Arts’ Firehouse Gallery (now the BCA Center), Turner met Cathy. They had their first child in December 2010 and married the following January.
Soon after the couple’s move to Burlington, the Turners signed up for a 10-by-15-foot garden plot at Rock Point School. Its therapeutic effects on Turner were immediate and profound.
“All the chatter in my head just kind of stopped,” he recalls. “I realized as soon as I put my hands into the soil that there was an unknown, deeply rooted connection to agriculture.”
Next, Turner enrolled in a three-week ecological design program at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield. He describes the experience as a “boot up the ass” that kick-started his interest in sustainability and the relationship between the built and natural environments.
From there, his passion snowballed. In 2013, Turner heard about the Farmer Veteran Coalition and says that “bells and whistles went off in my head.” Interested in getting involved, he contacted the group’s national headquarters in Davis, Calif., then attended a meeting at the White River Junction VA Medical Center about launching a Vermont chapter.
“Of course I spoke up,” Turner recalls. “That’s what I do.”
Among the other vets present that day was Josh Gerasimof, a peer support specialist at the VA’s Burlington Outpatient Lakeside Clinic. Gerasimof, 37, an Army veteran of the Kosovo War, founded the Vermont chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, which uses fishing as physical and emotional rehabilitation for disabled veterans. As he explains, its therapeutic benefits are akin to that of gardening — it gets vets outdoors, active, working with their hands and living in the moment.
Gerasimof says he remembers hearing Turner speak and thinking, I need to connect with him. What attracted him was Turner’s “passion and compassion and his willingness to put himself out there just to help another vet.”
In the years since they first met, the VA counselor says he’s referred other vets to Turner and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Gerasimof says he’s had many clients who aren’t from the area but moved to Vermont because they wanted to live off the grid and raise their own food but didn’t necessarily have the skills.
“I know that when I make that bridge to the Farmer Veteran Coalition, they’re going to be taken care of,” Gerasimof explains. “And then they’re amazed. They’re like, ‘Wow! If this guy can do it, then I can do it, too.'”
Ali Zipparo is the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets’ point person for farming programs that involve veterans. She says she first began working with Turner about three years ago on Homegrown by Heroes, a campaign sponsored by the Farmer Veteran Coalition that labels food products raised by local vets. She describes Turner as a “strong organizing force” around that effort.
“Jon has an incredible ability to bring really great people together and work towards goals,” Zipparo says. “We really appreciate the work that he’s doing and hope to raise awareness around the state for this work, because we think it’s pretty awesome.”
Though Turner has stepped away from his duties with the coalition and last year relinquished his position as chapter president, he’s still involved with the national organization.
“Under Jon’s leadership, we flourished and grew,” says Thomas Younkman, a current member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Younkman, who’s also an AgrAbility specialist with the Vermont Center for Independent Living in Morrisville, helps vets and others with disabilities get involved in, or return to, farming. “[Turner] rallied the troops, if you will, and we put together quite an organization of people,” Younkman adds. “He went with it as far as he could go and then turned it over to another president.”
Turner has since broadened his focus beyond veterans. He now works with public schools in Addison County and routinely hosts college freshmen from UVM and Middlebury College at his farm to teach them about sustainable agriculture. Together, they’ll weed a garden, erect a high tunnel and heat up an outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven that Turner and three other vets built last spring.
Turner’s efforts have begun to attract national attention. Earlier this year, Wild Roots Farm was one of only two farms in the country to be awarded a $3,500 grant from the National Farm to School Network. The nonprofit supports programs that teach K-12 students how to garden, learn about their food supply and source cafeteria food from local producers. In the last two years alone, Turner estimates he’s had several hundred students of all ages visit Wild Roots Farm.
Next month, he’ll host a group of 50 rural chaplains from the Midwest who are interested in learning more about Vermont’s rural culture and economy. They contacted Turner after hearing about his work through UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
“It’ll be great. We’ll fire up the pizza oven, make them some pizzas and go sit in the high tunnel,” he says. “I never anticipated that this was going to become my livelihood. But I truly believe we’re all here for a reason, and I do believe I found my purpose in life.”
Turner’s challenges aren’t completely behind him. He still deals with the physical and psychological scars of war, especially TBI symptoms that include memory loss, ringing in the ears and painful pressure behind his eyes. He also has nerve damage in his face and is losing teeth on the right side of his jaw where the shrapnel went in.
Nevertheless, Turner has embraced his mission with zeal. He suggests that if he can train other vets to farm and live healthier lives, and have them engage with students, “Then all the stuff that happened before [in combat] doesn’t matter anymore, because now your mission is extremely important. You’re teaching kids how to farm and grow food.”
In the process, Turner has discovered a renewed sense of pride in his military service and now sports Purple Heart license plates on his truck. As he puts it, “I’m going to own this. I know I went through some things that were very difficult. But I also did some really good shit in the military. I really did.”
As a symbolic gesture, he’s begun covering his old military tattoos with new ones, replacing images of skulls with vegetation and a bear paw. For a guy who once inked “Burn it down” in Arabic across one wrist, Turner seems to have embraced a new philosophy in life: Let it grow.
A version of this article first appeared on sevendaysvt.com and in Seven Days newspaper, a Burlington-based newsweekly published on Wednesdays and distributed for free at more than 1,000 locations in northern and central Vt. and Plattsburgh, N.Y.