A veteran serves his country through farming

Army veteran Alex Sutton holds a bird at his farm, Sutton Heritage Farms. Most of us don't think of the words "farmer" and "soldier" together. But surprisingly, farming may be a great option for soldiers returning home from war.

We've all heard the stories about the tough time some servicemembers are having finding a job when they return from war. The unemployment rate for veterans is 6.3 percent; for disabled servicemen and women, that number jumps to 8.5 percent. But some vets are looking to unconventional ways to make a living -- at least unconventional for a warrior.

Alex Sutton joined the Army straight out of high school. Over the next 13 years, he served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sniper. Then in 2007, his legs were blown off by roadside bomb. Now he walks on titanium legs and takes more than 15 medications for PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Alex is a decorated and disabled veteran. He’s also a farmer.

Alex may not have his own legs, but he is still strong, tall and broad.  Alex and his wife-to-be, Jessica Silverhorn, live in the small town of Jackson Springs, N.C. They are the proud owners and operators of Sutton Heritage Farms.

Jessica says she met Alex when he answered her call on Craiglist looking for someone to go fishing with.

“It was pretty much love at first,” she says. “After awhile -- about six months of dating – we decided that we probably wanted to spend rest of lives together.”

“Then we started looking for a place,” adds Alex.

And they found a place. They bought a home for themselves and their animals. Dozens of birds wander around the front yard. You have step carefully around them and keep an eye out for the odd angry goose.

Their farm's specialty is heritage poultry -- chickens with strange names like Barred Rock, Delawares, Dominiquers, Golden Campines, Silver Sebrights, Mille de Fleurs.

They also have quails, ducks and turkeys. They have pigs, goats, horses and dogs. They also grow a bit of corn and soybeans. For now, they just sell the eggs and birds out of their home.

It's nothing like Alex’s old job in the army. After all, he was a sniper.  He spent days a time traveling through deserted roads and villages, constantly aware of his soldiers, constantly scouting for danger and often killing the enemy.

“I mean, that's all I did was kill. There was nothing else to it. There was no taking prisoners, there was no taking hostages. There was just death and destruction. And it bothered me. It did. It really did. But I never let it because it was mission. I didn't have time to feel sad. I didn't have time to feel remorse,” he says.

But of course, after the Army, Alex did have time to feel and to think about what came next -- how to fill the rest of his life. “I spent 13 years killing people. What am I supposed to do in the civilian world?”

He ended up going back to what he knew.

“And my roots -- fall back to my roots -- come from small rural community back in Iowa. I'm a country boy,” he says.

Like Alex, almost half of returning soldiers come from America's rural areas. But most vets don't transition into being farmers, or are even lucky enough to find meaningful work. Alex receives a disability check in the mail each month from the army for $2,000. He also receives a retirement check and some other benefits.  All in all, it comes to about $4,000 a month. He says there's no way the farm would be where it is without the help of others.

One of those "others" is Michael O'Gorman. O'Gorman is the founder of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, a nonprofit that helps returning soldiers who want to become farmers.

“The veterans, the challenges that they face is the same challenge that all beginner farmers face and they need a lot of support,” says O’Gorman. “And we need to invest in them.”

To make that investment, O’Gorman proposed a beginning farmer micro-loan program to the USDA. The loans would range from $5,000-30,000. Right now, beginning farmers can take out loans in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to get up and running. O’Gorman says new farmers need to be really careful about taking out crazy amounts of money.

“They're going through life changes. They're starting families. They are getting married, they are having kids. They are paying bills. That's a lot of indebtedness,” he says.

O'Gorman says farming and soldiering have a lot in common -- they're both outdoor physical jobs -- but O'Gorman says farming offers something else that resonates with veterans.

“People talk about all farming, how healing that must be. The real secret to the healing is that they are needed,” he says.

That's true for Alex. He says that his animals are like his soldiers. He feels responsible for their lives.

“I just want to be able to give back. My whole life, since I was 17 I been in military. All I been doing is serving my country. Just because I'm hurt doesn't mean I want to stop doing that. It's just I have to figure out a different way to do it,” he says.

When I've spent time with Alex, he'll work himself too hard -- to the point of limping and then collapsing. His legs can no longer hold up his body. When he talks about his war experience in detail he can shut down for days. He doesn't like to call up memories of life as a sniper, and how good he was at his job. Perhaps he'll carry his PTSD for the rest of his life.  His fiancée, Jessie, says that before knowing Alex, she didn't really understand what soldiers went through, coming back from war.

“Just as a civilian, you don't understand what kind of effect those experiences have on somebody.  After meeting Alex and being submerged in it, it's real,” she says.” We have to be understanding to those coming back, that they have been changed and that hopefully eventually it will get better but it might not.”

Even so, Alex's story is one of possibility. That those who have lived through the worst and most awful parts of war don't have to feel like there's nothing else left for them.

"Pain is temporary, pride is forever. Of course, it hurts. It hurts my body every freakin' day that I push it out here. But you know what, it's that pride. It's worth it all just to see that one little sprout out of the ground or see that one little baby chip its way out of shell. It's worth every ounce of pain," says Alex.

More than anything, Alex would like to reach out to other soldiers -- to show them that farming is just another way to serve your country.


A previous version of this story ran on WAMU's "Latitudes."

About the author

Alix Blair is a producer who is currently working on a documentary film about Alex Sutton and other farmer veterans .

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