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Soldiers turn to gardens for therapy

Gardening can be therapeutic for troops trying to shake the stresses of war. Such "defiant gardens" have cropped up at combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Our garden was nothing big, but it reminded me of what once was and what someday would be again," said one soldier.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gardening can be comforting — even therapeutic — for troops trying to shake the stresses of war.

There's a long history of soldiers growing plants in the extreme conditions of a war zone. "Trench Gardens" produced needed food as well as healing diversion for soldiers mired in the muck on both sides of the Western Front in World War I. American prisoners of war cultivated "barbed wire gardens" to augment starvation rations and provide some mental escape during World War II.

Most recently, such "defiant gardens" have cropped up at isolated combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, much as they did around GI Quonset huts in the Vietnam of four decades ago.

"Such gardens stand not in harmony with but in opposition to their locations, asserting their presence," writes Kenneth Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, in his "Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime" (Trinity University Press, 2006).

Life amongst death
"In extreme conditions, where the most extreme is war, death is all around," Helphand adds in an interview. "A garden then takes on meaning that goes well beyond our daily lives."

Defiant gardening often isn't about food at all, Helphand says. Motivations vary, he said, but fall into five general areas:

  • Hope: "Planting is an optimistic act," Helphand says. "You put a seed into the ground in anticipation it will grow. It takes time, attention and maintenance. There's a miraculous aspect. Hope is embodied in all that."
  • Life: "Gardens are alive. They provide a connection with nature and life's forces."
  • Home: "Gardens either are part of or an extension of home, or places where we've lived or would like to be."
  • Work: "It's something to do. The garden often is part of a person's identity and culture."
  • Beauty: "Gardens are beautiful, and in a time of crisis that beauty is accentuated," Helphand says. "They're often strikingly dramatic when done in devastated areas."
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Gardening meant "coming back down to Earth" for Bill Beardall, who was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1970. Beardall flew H-53s, big cargo machines capable of carrying large payloads. That made them large targets, too.

‘The garden did a lot for me’
"The longer we stayed in-country, the more hyper we got," says Beardall, now director of Grounds Management and Fleet Services at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

"Our big helicopters drew a lot of fire; took a lot of hits. It was always time to shut down after a tough day and there were lots of tough days. The garden did a lot for me. I'd go back to my hooch and just sit and stare at it."

Justin Wanzek was with a North Dakota National Guard unit deployed near Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, in 2004. He started gardening with a buddy in Iraq because it reminded him of his farming roots near Valley City, N.D.

"Coming from North Dakota, everybody likes to stay busy, even when off-duty," Wanzek says. "We were always planting or digging irrigation ditches by hand. Our garden was nothing big, but it reminded me of what once was and what someday would be again."

Garden of defiance
And then there was the late John Creech, a World War II infantry officer who survived several German prisoner of war camps to become director of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington in the 1970s. He jokingly introduced himself to Helphand as "the only soldier ever awarded a medal for gardening." There was more to it than that, of course: After being moved to a camp in Poland that had an unused greenhouse, Creech talked his captors into letting him operate it for raising edibles.

His "barbed wire garden" supplemented a moldy bread and watered-down-soup diet for 1,500 fellow prisoners. It also earned him a Bronze Star for merit, which he was said to have valued more than the Silver Star won earlier for gallantry in action.

"All such gardens were an assertive action, not a retreat," Helphand says. "Some gardens were attacks. There was a certain defiance about them."