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Traumatized veteran finds peace in gardening

Military veterans often struggle with war-zone memories long after their return from conflict areas. At the Gardening Leave project, former soldiers plant vegetables and tend to the flowers as they recover from war.

Bursting with fresh vegetables and pungent herbs, this enclosed garden in inner city London is an oasis of nature and tranquility. But, even here, Ian Ford can't forget memories of returning home from military service in a war zone.

English war veteran Ian Ford smiles as he walks through an enclosed garden (Photo: copyright Anja Kueppers-McKinnon for Deutsche Welle)

For Ian Ford, gardening was a way of returning to normality

"I was more frightened walking down a street in England than I was on a street in Bosnia", he told DW. "You come out here and you don't know your neighbors, people don't talk to each other in the way we were used to in the army. And this becomes more frightening than anything in a conflict situation."

Ford served in both Bosnia and Kosovo Wars. Like many soldiers who have experienced war zones, he came home anxious and depressed, unable to fit back into civilian life.

"About 20 percent of people who've spent time in the military will have mental health issues," said Gardening Leave spokesperson Emma Mason.

The clinical term for the problems experienced by returning veterans is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Symptoms include nightmares, anxiety, insomnia and depression. Identifying the symptoms in soldiers is particularly difficult.

"We like to think that we're big strong men and we don't need help, and probably one of our biggest problems is our pride, not wanting to ask for help. We won't admit that we're in pain. It's just the nature of who we are," Ford said.

British troops sit waiting on a tank, during the Bosnia conflict.

Many troops returning from the conflict in Bosnia have recently been found to be suffering PTSD

Gardening Leave

Gardening Leave is a horticultural therapy project that brings both active military personnel and veterans closer to nature. Walled-in gardens offer a sense of sanctuary. Inside is an open space with no hidden corners - nothing that could surprise or unnerve veterans, many of whom suffer from hyper-vigilance and anxiety. Together they dig, plant vegetables, prune or weed. The work has a strong sense of structure.

Ian Ford holds freshly harvested squash, from Gardening Leave's walled garden in Chelsea

Fresh squash from the gardens of London's Royal Hospital Chelsea

"You reach very specific goals, like concentration, physical goals or balance and fine-motor skills," said Wilma Landorf, one of Gardening Leave's horticultural assistants. "It's very indirect and I think that's why it's successful. It doesn't feel like therapy."

She says working with plants helps the soldiers recover basic skills which have been lost in the aftermath of battle. Learning to respect living things also plays a huge role in the healing process.

"It's very therapeutic to see wildlife, and of course it shows a lot of respect. You see a worm and you know you're not going to kill that worm because it does a lot of good to our soil. It's therapeutic to sit down and watch birds or bees."

Not just a solitary experience

After the morning gardening session a small group of veterans sit around a wooden table, enjoying a cup of tea in the autumn sunshine.

"One of the major parts is the guys talking to each other," Ian Ford continues. "The amount of times someone will say, 'Oh, I've got this problem' or 'I've got that problem' and someone will turn around and say 'Oh, I've got that as well!'. You can almost see the relief falling off them, thinking 'Oh thank God, I'm not the only one!'".

A crewman of a Royal Navy Chinook helicopter gives the thumbs up while manning an M60 machinegun, as it flies low over Afghanistan's Helmand Province during NATO operations, in this photo made available by the Royal Navy in London, Monday Oct. 23, 2006. (ddp images/AP Photo/Sean Clee, Royal Navy, ho)

Gardening Leave offers a protected space for veterans to talk about what's bothering them

Ford now works for Gardening Leave, helping veterans negotiate London's busy public transport system and ensuring they get to their horticultural therapy sessions safely. Ford says his own life would be very different without Gardening Leave's support.

"Before I came to Gardening Leave I didn't see the point of gardening at all. I'd locked myself away for six months. I think I'd still be locked away somewhere in my dark depravity if it wasn't for this. This has been a major savior for me."

Gardening Leave has three walled gardens in Scotland and one in England. The latter is situated in the grounds of London's Royal Hospital Chelsea. The hospital, founded in 1682 by King Charles II to provide shelter to soldiers after their retirement, is a fitting location for one of the newest therapies for returning veterans.

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