By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Matt McCue had a moment of enlightenment in Iraq while guarding the back door of a house where his fellow soldiers were hunting Saddam Hussein -- he bit into a sweet lime and discovered an interest in horticulture.
Now he’s part of a movement seeking to help returning U.S. veterans find peace in civilian life by tilling the land.
"You take someone who has been walking around the street looking for insurgents, who’s basically trained to capture people, to kill them ... you can’t put them in some ordinary job and expect them to grasp on to it," McCue said.
"To go from that to watching things grow, to taking care of life, has been a very important step for me," he said by telephone from Niger in West Africa, where he is a Peace Corps volunteer teaching agriculture.
"It’s beautiful to go to that nurture mode," he said, recalling how his curiosity was sparked by the produce in farmers’ markets in Iraq. "I had no idea there was a variety of lime that tasted like that."
McCue will be in New York this weekend for a forum on the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on rural communities. Organized by a group called Farms Not Arms, the forum is part of the buildup to Sunday’s Farm Aid concert, a benefit for family farmers that was first launched in 1985.
McCue, who grew up in the suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico, said it was hard to leave his field of millet, sesame and beans in the village of Garbey Kourou, even for a short trip. He is hoping his story may be an example to others.
William O‘Hare, senior fellow at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, analyzed U.S. military casualties in a report last year and found the number of war deaths of soldiers from rural areas was disproportionately high.
"About 19 percent of the soldier-age population live in rural America but they account for 27 percent of the deaths," O‘Hare told Reuters. He linked that to a scarcity of jobs in poor rural areas where people were less likely to go to college or work full-time jobs, making a military career more appealing.
POLITICS OF WAR
One of the biggest names associated with Farm Aid, musician Willie Nelson, has long been an anti-war campaigner and Farms Not Arms says it opposes the war in Iraq.
But McCue and others involved in Saturday’s forum said they were politically neutral and focused on how farmers can work with veterans to their mutual advantage.
"Our farmers are in trouble right now and so are our soldiers," said Nadia McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq in 2004 -- one of at least 3,750 U.S. military deaths there since the March 2003 invasion.
She founded a group called Veterans Village to help soldiers returning with post traumatic stress disorder and other problems. The group plans to set up a self-sustaining organic farm in North Carolina for veterans.
"The farm is going to be a safe place for them to be," said McCaffrey. "Many of them thought they were going to go back to life and put the war behind them but it didn’t quite work this way."
Saturday’s event will mark the launch of a politically neutral group called the Farmer-Veteran Coalition to provide farm jobs, training and land for veterans, organizers said.
Steve Ledwell, a U.S. Navy veteran and recovering alcoholic and drug addict, runs a shelter in New Hampshire called the Veterans Victory Farm which houses up to 19 veterans.
"Getting back to the basics of farm life is very therapeutic," Ledwell said. A similar facility for as many as 200 veterans is planned for Long Island, New York.
When McCue looks back on his time in Iraq, he likes to recall farmers passing through checkpoints to take their crops of watermelons or pomegranates to markets that continued to function despite the violence and chaos.
"I realized there was a power in that," he said. "There are more soldiers in the United States than farmers at this point. Five years down the line maybe it won’t be rare for vets to take this path."