Written by Katie Mitchell, photos by Molly Whitmore — The morning sun burned through the last wisps of autumn fog and the promise of a new day unfolded with every curve on Runion’s Creek Road. I was on my way to meet Travis Coyle and Mark Lambert and learn about their Living Waters Farm Initiative, a space where veterans can congregate in the spirit of solidarity, hope, and healing. As I drove up the dirt path, the land was quiet; mountains loomed in the distance and trees displayed their fall flair. A couple of pot bellied pigs shared breakfast with some farm cats behind the house. Horses glistened in a neighboring pasture, and a white-tailed deer strode silently by.
Living Waters Farm Initiative is still in its fledgling stage, but it’s just a matter of time before Travis and Mark’s vision becomes a reality for local veterans and an integral part of their healing. They describe the project as a family farm, a place where veterans and their families can visit between sun up and sun down, to commune with others who might be struggling to find their way back to life after combat. The 23-acre farm is a therapeutic environment where veterans can care for animals, ride horses, tend the garden, hop on a fourwheeler, help out with a project, or just sit on the porch and talk to one another, all for free. Travis and Mark want there to be absolutely no barriers to the farm: it’s not a work exchange program, there is no membership fee, there is no application process. People may simply show up and be present. Travis and Mark believe in this peer support model because, as they say, “Hanging out together opens doors for healing conversations.” To that end, they hope to add a woodshop, a greenhouse, and a metalworking shop that veterans can use and enjoy. First on their wish list, however, is a barn to serve as a social space. Travis and his family live in the house on the property, and it’s not always convenient to have guests in the house. The barn would be a place for guests to sit and chat, enjoy a potluck dinner, or participate in other group activities. Lastly, they’d like to build a memorial on the property to honor veterans who have died in combat or by suicide. Travis and Mark have experienced the deaths of several friends over the years, and many of them are buried so far away it’s impossible to visit all their graves. The memorial would provide local veterans a place to honor and remember their fallen comrades.
Since December of last year, when Mark and Travis first decided to act on their vision, they’ve established bylaws, a Board of Directors, and their LLC status, and are currently in the process of securing nonprofit status. They’ve had a number of speaking engagements at schools, churches, VFWs, and AMVETS, plus an interview on iHeart Radio. And on November 10, Living Waters Farm Initiative will serve as the Grand Marshal of the Veterans Parade in Downtown Harrisonburg.
While Travis and Mark have enlisted counselors and therapists to sit on the Board of Directors and help guide the initiative, the farm itself is not about formal therapy sessions, appointments, or strict routines. It’s about connection: bringing together people with a shared experience — military service — as a way of getting them reacquainted with life as civilians. When soldiers finish a tour of duty and return home, they lose the day-to-day interactions with their combat buddies, who had become a sort of family during a very intense experience. The displacement they feel, plus post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health struggles and potential physical injuries, greatly affects their family life back home and makes re-integration frightening and difficult. The farm strives to reconnect veterans so they can support each other during this re-integration and remind each other of the people they still are, bridging the chasm between combat life and civilian life, and stemming the tide of PTSD-related suicides.
I asked if they worried that opening themselves up to the trauma of others would become too heavy to bear, but they explained that as survivors of combat, suicide, and addiction, they’ve seen the dark corners of existence. Being with others who’ve had similar experiences has a lightening effect, an unburdening of the spirit and mind. This is, after all, how they arrived at the idea of Living Waters Farm Initiative.
Mark and Travis, now 33 and 35 years old, remember attending the same elementary school but weren’t really friends at the time. Their paths diverged when they went to different high schools, and it wasn’t until six years ago that their lives reconnected, at an AA meeting. Travis was there for his alcoholism following a suicide attempt; Mark was there for his heroin addiction. Both were veterans with debilitating PTSD. Mark recalls seeing a “tired state of existence” on Travis’ face during that meeting and felt an immediate kinship with him, like two people speaking the same secret language. From there a friendship developed, one in which they confided their combat experiences to each other and began to feel, over time, sturdy and hopeful. Travis and Mark explained that when veterans return home, they are looked upon with sincere compassion by their families, their friends, their community, and their churches. However, no one knows a veteran’s experience like another veteran. Communicating with each other helped Travis and Mark to finally open the lines of communication with their loved ones.
The idea for the Living Waters Farm Initiative happened right after Travis and his wife Andrea moved onto the property. Travis was bottle feeding a calf on a cold morning when he realized that he was responsible for keeping this living creature alive. It gave him a renewed sense of purpose, and the connection he felt with the calf helped him reestablish his connection to his wife and children. He thought that if caring for an animal could cultivate hope in his heart, maybe it could do the same for others.
Living Waters Farm Initiative is grateful for the partnerships they’ve established and are looking for more. They’ve teamed up with Beards and Broads (those terms refer to types of axes) for an axe-throwing competition on November 9. All proceeds from this event go to Living Waters Farm Initiative. On November 17, Vinny’s Italian Grill and Pizzeria is donating 20% of all sales from 1 – 9pm. The Broadway High School DECA Chapter has organized multiple fundraisers, including a bake sale and tee shirt sales at their Soldier Tribute Football Game. Living Waters Farm Initiative continues to look for strategic partnerships and donors to sustain the ongoing projects at the farm and to help funnel veterans to the farm who might find solace there. They also hope to help veterans access post-combat care by providing advice for navigating the VA system. Any assistance with these projects — through donations of money, time, skills, expertise, or supplies — would be appreciated and instrumental in expanding Living Waters’ reach.
If you feel called to contribute to or collaborate with Living Waters Farm Initiative, there are a number of ways to do so. You can access their Go Fund Me page through their website. You can follow them on Facebook and message them there. Or you can email Travis directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie Mitchell is a mom, educator, and writer who has called Harrisonburg her home since 1993. She loves books, beer, fire, sunsets, spicy things, trees, water, live music, and unexpected naps. She is the writer and founder of Harrisonburg’s popular blog I Love My Burg and is currently working on her Masters Degree in Communication and Advocacy.
Photos of Living Waters Farm Initiative courtesy of Molly Whitmore Photography.