Beating Swords into Plowshares
by Sofi Thanhauser
Tom Rancich returned to the United States after his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and retired from the Navy in 2005. At this point, he said, “My life pretty much fell apart.” Although he did not realize it at the time, Rancich was suffering from PTSD.
“I couldn’t maintain relationships,” he said. “I was unexcited by everything. After being a Navy SEAL for six years, I was used to a very fast-paced tempo. Coming to the Vineyard, everything slowed to an unbearable crawl.” Rancich and his wife divorced in 2009. Rancich stayed on Martha’s Vineyard to be near his two sons, who were still in school.
In December 2014, the end of the war in Afghanistan was formally declared. The 13-year war had been the longest in U.S. history. For the more than 10,000 U.S. troops who remain stationed in Afghanistan, however, and for those veterans who have returned home with deep and lasting wounds, the war is far from over. A 2007 report released by the RAND corporation revealed that an estimated one-third of vets returning from Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury (also called TBI), or some severe form of depression. These injuries are, in the language of the report, “unlike physical wounds” in that they “often remain invisible to other service members, family, and society.”
The severity of the mental health crisis is becoming difficult to overlook. According to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation Health poll, one in two veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan say they know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide. Meanwhile, opiates have proven a dangerous, inadequate, and common treatment strategy: a 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed a 270 percent increase in opiate prescriptions by the VA since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with a fatal overdose rate among VA patients nearly double the national average.
The search for real solutions has begun. In February 2015, Congress unanimously passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a bill that aims to improve mental health and suicide prevention services at the Department of Veterans Affairs. For veterans and their loved ones, however, the question is not just how to prevent death, or merely cope, but how to begin to live in the wake of what they have experienced. For retired Navy SEAL Tom Rancich, resident of Vineyard Haven and veteran of the wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bridge back to life came in the form of a pig named Happy Birthday.
After his divorce, said Tom, he realized he had a problem and sought psychological treatment from Community Services, where he received help that “absolutely saved my life.” At Community Services, Tom spoke with Tom Bennett who “was able to tell me, here are your symptoms, here is why it’s happening, and this is not uncommon.” Tom began group therapy. When he started, Tom said, he was the only Iraq/ Afghanistan veteran in a group of Vietnam veterans. Now, it’s about 50/50. Group therapy continues to be an important part of his recovery. It’s “the only place I can really express myself to people who understand me,” said Tom, “and I think that is a sentiment that is shared by everyone in the group.”
Little by little, things were starting to get better. Little did he know, however, an entirely new chapter of his life was about to open.
In June 2010, Tom’s friend Liz Packer of SBS, brought Tom out behind this grain store on State Road in Vineyard Haven, where there were two piglets waiting for them. “Happy birthday,” Liz said.
“You know my birthday is August 29th,” Tom replied.
“Yes,” said Liz. “That’s when we’re going to eat them.”
That day, Tom became the somewhat unlikely caretaker of two small pigs.
Growing up among the dairy farms and apple orchards of upstate New York, Tom had evinced no particular enthusiasm towards farming. He had witnessed how the children of migrant farmworkers who flooded his elementary school each fall during the corn and apple harvests were treated as social outcasts. “Farmers were kind of looked down on as people who couldn’t learn a trade,” he said.
Nonetheless, taking care of the two piglets “really started to grow on me,” Tom said. “The statement is kind of ludicrous, but I really liked the fact that they were really happy to see me.”
Tom brought his pigs food and beer. The beer was mostly Offshore Ale, and the brewery also contributed its leftover barley mash for pig feed. There is a locally famous picture from this period of Tom drinking a beer with the pigs. (How does a pig drink beer? “Pretty much the same way a human does,” he said.)
August arrived and the beer-drinking picture was used as an invitation to Tom’s birthday pig roast. The pig named “Happy Birthday” lived up to his name and became the birthday meal. (The second pig, to whom a name had never been given, was also butchered and distributed to members of the community.) “And that’s the beginning of the story,” Tom said. “Because what was great about it was that I knew how the pig had been raised. I knew how the pig had been treated, I knew what the pig had eaten, and I knew how the pig had died, so it started this very emotional attachment to my food.”
His interest sparked, Tom began to work more and more with Liz, as well as Brian Athearn of RunAmok Farm in West Tisbury. The three formed an informal co-op, raising and processing animals using Brian and Liz’s farmland and expertise, and Tom’s enthusiasm, labor, and growing skillset. To learn how to slaughter sheep, Tom said, they “brought a guy from New Zealand to show us how to do that. Cows and pigs we shoot, so there’s nothing new about that for me.” The hallmark of this informal co-op, Tom said, is the fact that “we treat the animals with extreme respect.” Recently they butchered two lambs and there was, aside from the bones, less than a pound of waste. “The process of slaughtering is a very personal one. We always take time to thank the animals for the babies they’ve given us, or their milk, and then we put them down as quickly and as painlessly as possible.”
Looking back, Tom himself seems to marvel at his progress. “I went from having no interest in farming, having PTSD undiagnosed, being diagnosed, finding solace in raising a pig, to watching the way a farm works, to becoming involved in the way a farm works, to seeing some real miracles of nature, to seeing some real tragedies of nature. Then I bought a little place in Vineyard Haven, and rototilled my backyard and planted a garden. I suddenly was finding a lot of comfort in being able to grow my own food, raise my own beef, raise my own pork. I don’t know how to say it exactly, but it’s the whole process.”
In addition to his cooperation with Liz Packer and Brian Athearn, Tom also got involved in a group of deer hunters who co-op their work and the venison.
Getting involved in the process of raising animals, grow- ing vegetables, and hunting has meant becoming part of a community, which Tom finds tremendously rewarding. “So last night Liz and her daughter Lucy came over and we made 24 ready-to-eat meals for our friend Scarlet, who’s about to have a baby,” he said. “And those meals, except for some red potatoes, were all raised on our farm, on Brian’s farm, or hunted in our local field. So that girl’s going to be able to have her first 24 days post-maternity eating stuff that’s going to be going through her breast to her baby, and it’s all locally raised and we know everything about it. That’s kind of a cycle that’s very soothing to my soul.”
Besides the benefit of being able to provide for one another, Tom believes that the work itself brings people closer together as the joys and sorrows, crises and heroics of farm life, are all shared. “My buddy’s sheep gets attacked by a dog, everybody converges and tries to save the sheep. A calf is born that is not doing well, people will stand and keep watch over it.”
Farming has also given Tom something he can share with his sons.“I had my 23-year-old son, Blair, come back from Peru and say ‘Dad, could you teach me how to cook?’ I said, ‘Where do you want to start?’ and he said, ‘From the beginning,’ and the next day we went up and slaughtered two sheep.”
As a Navy SEAL, Tom estimates that between training missions, deployments, and “fly-aways” in a 16- year marriage he was away for an aggregate 13 years. “I was not around my oldest so very much until he was well into high school. There was always just kind of a void, so it was very nice to be able to sit there with what’s now a grown man and teach him things.” Tom showed his eldest son how to skin and butcher the sheep, “What part of the meat you have to be careful, what parts of the animal you don’t have to be careful. In a seven-day period he learned a whole new skill set. When we make lamb burgers he’s gonna know who the animal was, how the animal was processed.”
Tom is part of a growing number of servicemen and women returning home who have begun to find recovery in the process of bringing food up out of the earth.
The Farmer Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Davis, Ca., helps veterans who wish to make the transition into agriculture. The organization offers legal and business planning advice, as well as connecting veterans to grant oppor- tunities with which to develop their farms. Jason Foscolo, a former military lawyer who specializes in food and agricultural law provides free legal services for the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Mr. Foscolo said that for his clients, “There’s something rehabilitative about farming in itself.” He also thinks that veterans bring a unique attitude to farming. “There’s a mental resiliency” present in veterans, he said, that farmers need to have. “The whole point of basic training is to expose you to pressure. That’s just a selection criteria.” For a farmer, who has to make decisions about prices and weather at crucial moments, “You stand or you fall on those high pressure decisions you make.”
Tom also believes that the skills that make a great soldier can make a great farmer. “Civilians just don’t understand the military, and what they believe they understand about the military comes from movies, where everything is either about giving orders or taking orders,” he said. “But truthfully the military is a lot about innovation, leadership and about being willing to be trained, and you can’t make it anywhere in the military without having perseverance, and I think that those are all traits that are required to be a farmer.”
Tom’s latest venture? Canning. Having never canned anything in his life, he learned the process from books and from the advice of friends. He made hot peppers and some pickles. “My God, did it come out wonderful.” He had labels made up for the peppers, which are called “Tom’s Hotties.”
“I always enjoyed cooking,” Tom said, “and so the process of seeing everything from seed to feed is just very rewarding to me. It allows me to slow my mind down.”
Martha’s Vineyard Community Services has many resources for Veterans
- For help during a mental health crisis/emergency, dial 508.693.0032.
For more information about the Farmer Veteran Coalition, visit farmvetco.org.