As a retired physician’s assistant, Mike Newman understands the role of a positive environment in one’s recovery from injury or illness.
“I have provided health care to Soldiers for many years, and a happy Soldier is a much healthier Soldier,” he said. Newman, a master gardener, is one of many dedicated volunteers who are cultivating plants as well as happier and healthier Soldiers at the Warrior Transition Battalion tranquility garden.
To develop and maintain the garden, the WTB has partnered with the Directorate of Public Works, the Master Gardeners of the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension and the Dig and Dream Garden Club. Volunteers from these agencies lend their time and talents to create a “safe haven” for those in recovery and their caregivers.
As part of their care plans, Soldiers in transition can also periodically participate in the project when they are able to. “We’re building bridges not only within the battalion, but also within the community,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. Judson “Jay” Nelson. Nelson’s wife and lead battalion volunteer, Beth Nelson said there are currently about 40 individuals involved with the garden.
The partnership between Fort Bragg and these agencies is a step toward creating mutually beneficial relationships in the community. The master gardeners share their expertise in Sandhills gardening and their experiences in the military, as many of them are retired Soldiers or Family members. In turn, the Soldiers can build camaraderie with people who empathize with their situations.
“Any chance for our Soldiers to associate with other veterans and tell their stories is valuable,” said Nelson.
“By offering these volunteer opportunities, we can encourage people especially retired people, to be active in the community,” added master gardener Cheryl Garrett. “When I reflect on my life with the Army, the best times have been those when I was connected to my community,” said Beth Nelson.
“We laugh together, brainstorm about how to solve plant problems and exert physical energy. In the process, we get to know each other, build some friendships and learn something new. I get all of that from working in the garden. My hope is that by opening the door to this opportunity, our Soldiers and Families will get something good out of it, too.”
The crew has several goals for the garden. “Our hope and dream for the garden is that it will provide a tranquil space for reflection,” said Beth. “But, our plan is to make it a place where our Soldiers in transition can participate in physical and occupational therapy.”
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the therapeutic benefits of a garden are proven throughout history, from the ancient Zen gardens of Japan and monastic cloister gardens of Europe, to the curative urban retreats at facilities such as Duke University Hospital’s modern roof garden.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “Father of American Psychiatry,” was first to document the positive effects of gardening on individuals with mental health concerns. During the post World War II era, gardening was included in the rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans. With medicine’s new emphasis on holistic healing, the practice of gardening is now used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational and community settings.
“Today, we know that being surrounded by nature plays a significant role in patient outcome,” said Dr. Evangeline Lausier, a staff physician of internal medicine at Duke Integrative Medicine.
Research conducted at the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University suggests that viewing natural scenes fosters stress recovery by evoking optimistic feelings, reducing negative emotions, effectively garnering interest and reducing stressful thoughts.
Horticultural therapy techniques are employed to assist participants learn new skills or regain lost skills. Studies demonstrate that the practice improves memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills and socialization.
In physical rehabilitation, horticultural therapy can strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance and endurance.
Horticultural therapy also teaches patients to work independently, solve problems and follow directions. Additionally, natural settings can promote positive changes in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and brain activity.
The WTB’s tranquility garden features many of the basic elements of a horticultural therapy site: accessible paths, raised beds, benches and a variety of flora. The plants are native species, so they are drought tolerant and require minimal maintenance. Yet, they are also sensory oriented to provide a wide array of colors, textures and fragrances.
Currently, garden residents include birch trees, oak trees, hydrangeas, pansies, violas, purple muhly grass and camellias. A rainbow of colors from recently planted daffodils and butterfly bushes should greet WTB residents and garden visitors in the spring.
The tranquility garden will assist the battalion meet its unique mission — to provide all Soldiers in transition with the best possible care for a rapid and thorough recovery, whether they return to duty or separate from service.
“It’s my experience that gardening can be very healing, and the battalion has at any given time nearly 500 Soldiers who are focused on healing,” Beth explained. “Healing is more than just physical. It’s emotional and spiritual, too. We’re creating a space that provides that opportunity,” she said.
“Our first responsibility is to take care of our Soldiers,” said Newman. “A quiet, beautiful garden has a calming effect on most people. Our Soldiers need that to recover. This garden will provide a sense that we care about them … that they are not just numbers but important human beings.”
For more information on therapeutic gardening, visit the American Horticultural Therapy Association at www.ahta.org.