CLAY, W.Va. -- Eric Grandon, 47 and scathed from serving in six tours with the U.S. Army, looked out over his property for more than a year. He aimlessly gazed out his storm door and often wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.
The Clay County man never expected to be collecting Social Security Disability benefits at age 45. Grandon, like many veterans returning from combat, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said it stems from his involvement in Operation Desert Storm.
Grandon periodically has vivid flashbacks of his warfare experiences. He recalls a horrific flashback he had on Feb. 27, 2011, that left him unable to care for himself for three weeks. He doesn't like to talk about it beyond admitting that it was absolutely miserable.
Grandon has been discriminated against. His anxiety and PTSD prevent him from working in society.
His pride, however, was restored when he met James McCormick.
McCormick, owner of Raising Cane Farms in Mason County, is also a retired wounded veteran who served in two combat tours with the U.S. Army. His mission is to work with veterans who are returning from combat by providing them a place to work and relax with a team of other veterans. He has found value in agriculture.
"There is tremendous therapeutic value with farming and agriculture," McCormick said. "Watching life blossom, seeing Mother Nature's work and getting hands in the soil are great for these veterans. It gets them out of their homes and agriculture-based therapy is really helping to heal these people."
A sense of accomplishment
McCormick has visited Grandon and helped him with work around his property. McCormick is the chairman of the West Virginia Veterans Coalition and sits on the board with the farmer.
"He made me secretary without even meeting me," Grandon said. "That was truly an honor. Once we began talking, it seemed as though we grew up together and served together. We are the answers to each other's prayers. He's a rock star in the veteran world and I'm forever in debt to him."
McCormick approached West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick about the possibility of assisting wounded veterans become farmers and agribusiness leaders.
"I will never forget it," McCormick said. "Walt looked at me and said, 'I've never experienced combat, but let's work together and do something to help these folks because it's just the right thing to do.' It was also important that we didn't forget the young teens whose parents may have perished in combat, the widow and the orphan -- we wanted to do something for them as well."
Helmick hired McCormick to serve as the director of his new initiative: The West Virginia Warriors and Veterans to Agriculture Project. The project currently is in its beginning stages, though Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been briefed on it.
"This project is not a hands out to veterans -- it's a hands up," said Bob Tabb, senior manager for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. "This is an opportunity for veterans to work together, enjoy the camaraderie with fellow veterans and learn about agricultural practices that will help veterans harvest crops and grow food.
"Veterans get a sense of accomplishment when they see their final products and are able to sell their crops or consume it themselves. Food tastes better when you've actually raised it."
The project seeks to empower military personnel and veterans to provide locally grown food and agriculture-related business within West Virginia.
The overarching goal of the project is to cultivate a new generation of farmers, agribusiness leaders and develop viable employment and meaningful careers through a collaboration of state agencies, resources, farming and military communities both state and privately owned.
Those assisting with the project are working directly with organizations and programs to help with the physical and psychological needs of injured and wounded veterans by opening up access to property, materials and assistance to those groups that work with wounded and injured troop members.
McCormick said the project also will provide marketing and mentoring assistance to veteran farmers who currently are operating an agribusiness.
McCormick said he is working to acquire property that veterans can use for agricultural purposes -- 15-20 acre plots he would offer to them at a yearly, affordable rate. McCormick and Tabb said they have been in talks with the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority regarding obtaining reclaimed mining land there.
For those wounded veterans who have lost a limb in combat, this project will assist in getting them equipment and tools with special adaptations. Tabb said the sophistication of machinery today is amazing -- there are pieces of equipment and tools that can be used by people who have a variety of physical limitations.