Following several violent tours in Iraq, Ray Russell was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He had applied for services at his local Veterans Affair office, and after the diagnosis, the VA set up Russell with resources designed to help. But he always felt like he was still missing something.
At the time, he didn't think much about treatment other than what the VA offered. Instead, he spent most of his days working overtime in the restaurant industry.
"I had been working myself to not feel," he explains. "I would work 80 hours, 90 hours; there was a time when I worked 110 hours a week."
He and his family, though, had moved onto 30 acres of land in Tennessee, and while he didn't have any experience doing so, he dreamed of farming and raising animals there.
One day, on his way home from an appointment at the VA, Russell decided to buy some chickens at a tractor supply store.
Russell on his land in Tennessee. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.
Russell didn't know much about caring for chickens then. He didn't even have a coop for them, so he temporarily set them up to live in his basement.
Not long after this positive step forward, however, tragedy struck.
In 2013, Russell's wife, Maria, died by suicide. It was disturbingly similar to another suicide he had witnessed while serving in Iraq, and the experience amplified his PTSD symptoms significantly.
He developed a sense of hyper-vigilance or heightened alertness. He stopped sleeping, lost his restaurant job, and couldn't keep another job — which was particularly difficult for him, considering he'd been working since he was 11 years old.
Russell in Iraq. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.
What's more, his two young daughters needed him, so he felt mounting pressure to provide for his family. However, with trauma like this affecting him everyday, it started to feel impossible.
Russell knew he needed help, but he also knew the mental health services available to him through the VA weren't quite enough.
"There were things that the VA was not able to do for me, such as bringing me into a community and giving me a purpose and a focus other than just work," he says.
He knew he wasn't the only one who was struggling in this way. He'd lost several friends who'd served in the military with him to suicide. Like them, he had no idea how to help himself.
That's when Russell turned to his farm.
Without a job to occupy his time, he began clearing the overgrown land and setting it up for crops and animals. He started to teach himself what he needed to know to run a farm by watching YouTube videos.
Part of Russell's land in Tennessee. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.
After a few months, he noticed his farmland wasn't the only thing that was improving — he was starting to feel better, too.
"I was feeling good about myself like I hadn't in years," he says.
The effects were so encouraging that he couldn't keep it to himself. He thought of all the other veterans he knew and came up with a way to try to help them heal through farming, too.
He told his VA social worker and psychiatrist about his idea to invite other veterans to the farm.
Since he wasn't a mental health expert, he wanted to make sure he wouldn't accidentally hurt other people or himself. As it turns out, people at the VA thought it was a wonderful idea and even offered to help Russell create mental health programs on the farm for the veterans.
Soon after, Russell shared his plan on Facebook. He received an overwhelmingly positive response.
"[My post] got so many shares, so many likes. I was getting messages from people all over, saying, 'Hey, man, I need this kind of help,'" he remembers.
Some of the animals on Veterans Hill Farm. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.
That was the beginning of the Veterans Hill Farm — a place designed to help disabled veterans, primarily those with PTSD.
It's designed to work like this: A veteran can stay on the farm for 28 days. During that time, they complete a program designed by mental health professionals and led by volunteer experts, including agriculturists, woodworkers, and animal experts. Each week, the veterans focus on a different area, such as tilling the land or building structures, to help them develop useful skills. They also work with a local chef to learn how to prepare farm fresh food for healthy meals.
When they're not working and learning on the farm, they have the opportunity to go through counseling and take part in healing practices like yoga and church services.
Image via iStock.
They experience all this with fellow veterans who've had some of the same struggles, which aims to help them rebuild a sense of community.
Veterans Hill Farm isn't officially open so far, in 2018, but it's getting there — thanks to help from supporters both close by and around the country. They're clearing the land, building tiny houses for the veterans to stay in, and donating materials to get the place ready for guests.
Through all this preparation, the farm has already helped 10 veterans. One veteran came by to offer a hand, and Russell and his team helped him find work and housing. They even reunited him with his 7-year-old daughter, who he hadn't seen since she was a baby.
Russell hopes veterans leave his farm with skills they'll need to move forward in their lives when they get back home as well as a strengthened support system.
After all, that's exactly what the farm has given him. He loves working in nature with the 120 or so animals that now live there. He's developed more tools that have helped him continue to heal. He's even found love again. Russell now has four children, and his wife, Veronica, works beside him on the farm.
Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.
Russell says he also considers every veteran to be family because of their shared experiences and that he always will. To him, it feels like a natural step to give them a temporary home on his farm. He's just grateful for the chance to help them find the hope they're looking for.
"We have to be there for each other," he says. "And that's what I'm trying to do."