VetsWork: “Community and Farming. Going back to our roots.”


On March 26th I participated in the Ground Operations event in Olympia. Looking back on the event I feel more than honored to have been asked to speak and participate in a panel after the screening of a documentary that exemplifies some of the most pressing issues facing America.

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The night started with the County Commissioner setting up the format of the night and then he brought on the project coordinator, Mark Oravsky. Mark shared with us his (all too common) veteran transition story of battling with issues of depression, drug abuse, and suicidal tendencies. His story is not uncommon considering 22 veterans do the unspeakable act of ending their glorious lives every day! He also shared with us his experience with “professionals” in dealing with veteran transitions and how they filled him with pills that left him a shell of a person.

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Mark Oravsky, Picture by Jo Arlow

Fortunately for us Mark is an amazingly strong individual who found himself through non-traditional transitioning methods. His methods of transition are not hard to find. Hell, they are not even new. They are as old as human history itself. Community and Farming. That’s all it takes. We simply must go back to our roots. We are all humans and we all need humans to survive. This simple metric has lead Mark to be an active community leader and advocate. He truly is an inspirational person that I feel honored to work shoulder to shoulder with.

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Photo By Jo Arlow

Mark used his experiences to bring the community together in such a way that we could have an intelligent conversation about these pressing issues. He brought in local experts who also have found innovative forms of strengthening our community and sustainability.

The panel included individuals with a proven track record who have dedicated their lives to this issue and he felt I was worthy of being on this prestigious panel. During the panel I was sitting next to Lourdes E. Alvarado Ramos (Alfie) who is the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) Director.


Alfie speaking and me being nervous – Photo by Jo Arlo

So there I was waiting for my turn to speak, fiddling with my loosely written speech and after several people who had amazing and thoughtful things to say. I was starting to wonder why I was up there. Alfie goes up and, like a pro and wonderful veteran advocate that she is, speaks about how the WDVA is finding all kinds of new ways to approach transitioning veterans. Now it was my turn. I started off telling the crowd I was nervous and I laughed… nervously of course. Then I just took a deep breath and took the opportunity Mark had granted me and let loose all the things I have seen and experienced working as the VetsWork VCC Intern Coordinator.

I started by saying something like this:
“My name is Matthew West and I am a transitioning Navy veteran. I am a father and husband. I am an environmental steward. I am a first generation college grad. I am an AmeriCorps volunteer. I am a VetsWork Intern. I am a WDVA and Center for Natural Lands Management Intern and I am the Veterans Conservation Corps (VCC) South Sound Internship Coordinator” (Whew…I took a deep breath and laughed a little with the crowd). “I find myself here representing all of these organizations with the common thread of serving veterans and/or the environment. Without any one of these organizations I fear I would be unemployed or employed but undervalued.” (Dead silence fell over the crowd…I let it linger).

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Matthew West

“I know this is true because I work with veterans whom are consistently undervalued by American society. For the past two days I have had the opportunity to meet and interview veterans for VCC internships. These internships are designed as non-traditional transition methods which have been created from the teachings of the late John Beal.

John Beal was a Vietnam Veteran who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress, drug and alcohol abuse, and after his health started deteriorating he was told by doctors that he had 5-6 months to live.” (Again I let that sink, in.)

“Around that time Beal found a refrigerator that was dumped into Hamm Creek (near his home) which is a tributary to the Duwamish River, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. He went home, grabbed a shovel, dug out the fridge and in the process he found a mission that gave his life purpose and meaning.” (I held back tears at this point and after a second to gather myself I told them the good news.)

“John continued his work in restoring Hamm creek and other local waterways for another 25 years.” (I’m not sure if there really was any clapping at this point, but in my mind there was a great response to this information.) “He found that by healing the earth he was in fact was healing himself. This basic premise is what we do at the VCC. By offering veterans a chance to heal the earth I have witnessed incredible transitions of incredible people doing incredible work.

Which reminds me…

Any country worth defending is worth preserving.

Thank you.”

At this point there was, in fact, a very loud and standing applause. I turned around to find Alfi trying to tell me how great my speech was but couldn’t really hear her though the clapping. They were still clapping well after I sat down.

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Photo By Jo Arlow

After the event ended I was filled with energy and excitement. I am so grateful that there are so many people that truly wish to help the community. Every person involved is a hero in my book. I know there is much work to be done, but with organizations like GRuB, Growing Veterans, Ground Operations, Rainier Therapeutic Riding, OlyFloat, the Eastside Urban Farm and Garden Center, WDVA, Enterprise for Equity, Veterans Conservation Corps, and of course the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork program, we will begin the process of inherently changing the culture of community to one that keeps humans connected to the Earth. In return, the Earth will continue to feed us, even heal our hidden wounds and we will never let a single person be left behind.

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