Swords into Plowshares: One Soldier's Story
by Matthew McCue
Matthew McCue is an Iraq War vet turned farmer and member of Farms Not Arms. When he wrote this piece, he was teaching agriculture for the PeaceCorps in Niger, Africa. He now runs his own small produce farming operation outside of Sebastopol, California. Here are some recent photos of Matt selling his veggies at the Farmers’ Market.
My hoe strikes the ground every time I take a step. A local woman follows behind, tossing seeds in the holes that I dig. The West African sun beats down without mercy but I keep working. The soil is a well weathered remnant of the jungle that used to dominate the arid land that is now known as the Sahel. I am planting millet, one of the most robust crops known to man. I can not create or even fully control what will spring up from this seemingly barren field. I can only guide it.
You can cover a soldier with night vision, Kevlar, GPS tracking systems, advanced infantry weapons, put him in a Bradley fighting vehicle, and send him in to battle but without his or her personal force and motivation the equipment reveals itself for what it is: lifeless machinery. If I tell you of my experience in combat surely you will be able to read a story with more bravado, more blood, more adrenaline, and more pain. I can tell you that to kill you have to shut off a piece of your heart, and to see another soldier die will shatter what is left of it. To function you have to become immersed in the machine that is killing you and keeping you alive at the same time. You have to bring life to the machine.
Rather than thinking of Iraq as the place where my heart was broken and my mind was controlled I prefer to think of Iraq as the place where I discovered the key to my freedom. I prefer to remember the trucks full of watermelons and pomegranates that would pass through our checkpoints. I felt strangely human as I waved cars by with pomegranate seeds stuck to my Kevlar vest.
I witnessed many unforgettable things in Iraq but the aspect that changed my life more than any other was the way the farmers kept working and selling their produce through the chaos of a regime change. Farmers have a quiet power that made me realize that I could not accomplish anything good for the world with my M16 in hand. It was in Iraq eating fruit that I realized that I needed to find a new way to think. It was also in Iraq that I learned to hide how I felt.
I returned to Fort Hood, Texas a newly promoted sergeant. I spent the next seven months training kids how to kill. At night I would find myself in my room listening to anti-war music as I prepared for the next day of training.
When my time was up and I left, I had no clue what to do. As an accomplished infantryman I could become a cop, private soldier or oil rig worker. I chose to collect unemployment and climb mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Unemployment ran out and through a series of events that included a summer stint in Alaska as a commercial fisherman, I found myself in Pahoa, Hawaii. I came to volunteer on a five acre permaculture farm owned by a friend of a friend. It was there that I stopped being a soldier.
I learned about the concept of sustainability and how to compost. I saw so many beautiful plants and learned so much I was almost overwhelmed. I was secretly still afraid of getting mortared or running over an IED as we would drive into Hilo. I took up bogie boarding and faced a very real and logical fear of drowning because I am a weak swimmer.
As I look back, my time in Hawaii was priceless. It was there that I applied for the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. Because of my lack of experience and formal education I really had no idea if they would let me into their six-month apprentice program, but in April 2006 I found myself setting up my two-person tent on the edge of one of the fields.
It took about three seconds for me to realize that I had found a very special place. I spent the next six months with the smartest group I have ever worked with and ended up in a heated discussion about every day. My most frequent debate partners were the people I loved the most. Just about everyone knew more about horticulture than me. Everybody taught me something.
I would still go to sleep afraid of mortars but the joy of the present and anticipation of the next harvest made the past seem to loosen its grip on my life. I learned more from six months on a college farm in Santa Cruz than four years in the Military. I escaped the army without a scratch — but before learning to care for life I was caught in a slow death with nothing to watch but my own mortality and the horrifying news.
I feel like the luckiest person alive because as I work in my field in west Africa my body becomes stronger and I am no longer an observer of the quiet beauty, I am a caretaker. Having been very effectively conditioned to kill and accept death, taking care of plants has had a kind of opposite effect on my mind, heart, and soul.
Sometimes I feel that the torment that has plagued me during and after my time in Iraq was just the plowing of the field of my heart before the deep rooted seed of peace and sustainability could grow within my soul.
The quiet power of farming has overtaken me and I no longer live in fear.
Farms Not Arms is made up of farmers seeking a more peaceful world. Our Swords to Plowshares project makes our farms available to Iraq and Afghan War vets looking for employment, job training and places to heal.
In California we are forming a non-political Farmer-Veteran Coalition, bringing together the farming community with veterans, their advocates and their survivors so we can help care for the disproportionately large number of veterans that are returning to rural America, and bring new energy to our farms.
Farms Not Arms and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition will offer scholarship assistance to any returning veterans that wish to attend the Agroecology apprentice program that Matthew did at the University of California Santa Cruz.