Veterans Day 2020: PEOPLE Honors Heroes Who Find Sweet Ways to Serve Others After Active Duty
These military vets are bringing their love of service to their communities
Using the Power of Plants to Help Vets
When he left the Air Force in 2008, several years after his father’s death in a motorcycle accident, former Air Force Senior Airman John Mahshie felt “alone and isolated.” And he figured other vets might be struggling as well.
“I wanted to create a community for fellow veterans who needed a sense of belonging,” Mahshie, 38, tells PEOPLE. “I had this vision of growing a ‘healing farm’ . . . [because] it’s just as important to feed the body as it is to feed the spirit.”
So in 2013 Mahshie vets a new transformed a nine-acre plot of land in Hendersonville, N.C., that his family had used to raise pigs into lush farmland filled with organic fruit trees, berry bushes and medicinal herbs and flowers.
“I learned pretty much everything about planting and growing by watching YouTube videos,” says Mahshie, who, with his wife, Nicole, 34, now invites former service members to volunteer as needed to help keep Veterans Healing Farm running.
The vets — who often stay on the property in shipping containers transformed into bunkhouses — “learn new skills but also find purpose in life,” says Mahshie, who’s convinced that in addition to producing nutritious foods, farming provides the vets with numerous therapeutic benefits, including physical exercise and vitamin D from spending time in the sun.
Equally important, the farm offers a natural environment where former members of the military, some of whom have been struggling with unemployment, depression or homelessness, can gather together amid the woodpeckers and the bees and “continue their military mission of service before self,” says Mahshie.
In addition, over the past six years the group has given away more than 35,000 lbs. of veteran-grown produce and flowers to other local veterans and their caregivers.
“What we do is give veterans a new community that they can be a part of with other veterans, caregivers and civilians,” says Mahshie. “The need is so significant. We grow plants, but we cultivate life through building community.”
—Reporting by SUSAN KEATING
Honoring the Sacrifices Made by Our Military
Not long after returning home to Dallas in 2006 following four deployments to Iraq and Southeast Asia, SEAL Team 5 officer Stephen Holley realized he was becoming increasingly angry and frustrated.
“Memorial Day had just rolled around,” recalls Holley, 43, who lost countless friends while overseas, “and it just felt like there wasn’t that much remembrance around that day. It had become a three-day holiday to kick off the summer.”
So in 2011 the former SEAL lieutenant and fellow SEAL Clint Bruce set out to remind people of the true meaning of Memorial Day. And what started out as a 20-hour memorial march through Dallas — complete with military backpacks and flags — soon grew into the nonprofit Carry the Load, which now honors veterans, first responders and their families 365 days a year.
The group now hosts over 70 rallies across 46 states, and it has raised more than $21 million, providing everything from job and transition assistance to counseling, suicide prevention and educational scholarships.
“People come out and walk with us in memory of a loved one,” says Holley. “But we really started this for ourselves. What we didn’t anticipate was the support and goodwill from so many people who appreciate what we’re doing.”
—Reporting by SUSAN KEATING
Counseling Vets with Mental Health Issues
As peer support specialists for the Department of Veterans Affairs, former U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Sherrie Cook and former U.S. Army Airman Jason Zimmerman know that the bonds of war and military service run deep. Each of them has lived through many of the same traumas and struggles as the veterans they’re helping on a daily basis. It’s a shared history that gives them both the credibility and the tools they need to counsel the more than 1 million former service members coping with a range of issues including depression, PTSD and substance abuse.
“I see people struggling with the same things I struggled with,” says Zimmerman, 44, who spent eight years as an Army medic serving in numerous combat zones.
He was finally able to come to terms with his own PTSD diagnosis years after leaving the service, when he began working as a peer counselor at the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Mountain Home, Tenn.
The 63-year-old Cook, who works at the Kernersville VA Healthcare Center in Kernersville, N.C., also struggled with mental health issues after her nine-year stint in the Air Force from 1977 to 1986.
“Simply sharing with a veteran how I deal with difficulties in my life,” says Cook, “encourages them to understand that they aren’t in this struggle alone.”
—Reporting by SUSAN KEATING
Helping Foster Kids and Building Community
Growing up in Fort Worth, former U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Beau Blouin spent much of his youth dealing with homelessness and hunger, along with physical and emotional abuse. It’s those memories of being a lost, angry and emotionally scarred teenager that inspired him to help foster kids and teens in Central Florida develop the skills to succeed in life.
“I wanted to provide full-service healing, using my own life challenges as a curriculum,” says the veteran, 34, who created the nonprofit Fit4Truth in 2014, offering foster youth access to outdoor activities and workshops on entrepreneurship and meditation.
In 2016 Blouin’s work with kids led him to expand his mission and launch Connective Human, an organization that helps companies and nonprofits work together to improve their communities. Last year Blouin’s group spearheaded a project that turned a clinic in Orlando into a more welcoming, therapeutic space for children with autism by painting colorful murals on the walls.
“The Marines taught me how to communicate from the heart,” says the Orlando-based Blouin. "And now I'm trying to pass that along to others."
—Reporting by ANDREA BILLUPS
Training Service Dogs for Vets
Former U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Danique Masingill knows firsthand how effective a service dog can be in helping former service members cope with the crippling effects of PTSD — and how a poorly trained dog can make a bad situation even worse.
“I left the military with quite a bit of [emotional] trauma after serving for five years and eventually got a service dog,” says Masingill, 40, who was moved to enlist after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “But he hadn’t been trained properly, so I never knew what to expect from him when I went out into public — which only caused more anxiety and panic attacks.”
Determined to keep that from happening to anyone else, in 2017 Masingill — along with fellow veterans Jason Haag and her husband, Matt — created the nonprofit Leashes of Valor, which provides highly trained service dogs free of charge to former service members suffering from such things as PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. The volunteers spend almost 18 months training the dogs on their 20-acre farm in rural Virginia to make sure they’re qualified for the lifestyle requirements of their new owners, who fill out a detailed 18-page application.
“We want to provide a good match between the veteran and the dog,” says Masingill, “allowing them to return to the community with dignity.”
Keeping the Memory of Fallen Warriors Alive
It’s been 38 years since retired Air Force Technical Sgt. Randy Lewer first began taking part in military funerals for veterans — and the memories still bring tears to his eyes.
“It’s probably one of the saddest things I’ve ever done,” recalls the 58-year-old Lewer, who served in the Marine Corps, the U.S. Army and both the Air and Army National Guards over 31 years. “We would do these funerals where my color guard unit and the funeral director would be the only people there. No relatives. No family. Veterans, all of them, deserve so much more.”
Since 2006 Lewer — the Florida director of the Wreaths Across America program — has done everything he can to ensure that the memory of fallen veterans is kept alive. Each year he oversees the work of hundreds of volunteers who lay more than 36,000 wreaths on the graves of former service members at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell on WAA’s annual day of honor, which this year falls on Dec. 19. Thousands of well-wishers traditionally line the local streets to show their respect as a semitruck loaded with wreaths makes its way to the cemetery.
“The world is such a divisive place these days,” says Lewer. “But honoring the memory of these men and women, who have given up so much for our freedoms, is maybe the one thing we can all get behind. At least that’s my hope.”
—Reporting by ANDREA BILLUPS
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