29 Jul
After War, Finding Peace and Calm in a Garden

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive

Our Towns

After War, Finding Peace and Calm in a Garden


Richard Perry/The New York Times

From left, Thurston Mangrum, Patrick Corcoran, Jan Zientek and Reginald Mourning at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in East Orange, N.J. Mr. Zientek has been advising the men on working in the hospital’s garden.


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http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/nyregion/30towns.html?sq=After War, Finding Peace&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all


Published: November 29, 2009



Reggie Mourning wears a Marine Corps sweatshirt and two 9-millimeter pistol rounds on a chain around his neck. There’s an M14 round hanging from his keychain. His tour of duty with a mortar unit in Vietnam was long in the past, but never really ended.

After coming home, he worked for years as a trucker with the jagged rhythms of the war zone wired into his brain — sometimes barreling cross-country, drunk and stoned, with only his dog as a companion. In 2007, sick, exhausted, on his way to becoming homeless, he made it to the substance abuse program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Newark.

“I was more or less a Neanderthal — everyone was scared of me,” he said. “I have a problem with people. Period.”

But when he speaks of this year’s harvest at the center’s vegetable gardens — the tomatoes and eggplant, lettuce and kale, basil, squash, corn, peppers, collard greens and the rest, he sounds like someone who, in a way he never expected, has found a measure of peace.

“When I got here I was completely isolated,” said Mr. Mourning, 58, who has started his own company, Cobra Landscaping, as a result of his experience. “But being with the plants gives me time to think and meditate, to feel the soil or clay or whatever you’re working in. I talk to my plants. Maybe it’s crazy, but it’s given me a chance to get out, work with others, grow something and do something that’s right, not just for myself, but for the whole community.”

It’s not as if the center, the hub of the Veteran Affairs New Jersey health care system, which treats 60,000 veterans a year, has turned into something for New Age warriors out of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” But in the season of too much — stress, food, expectations — many veterans here are contemplating the soil they tilled, the vegetables and herbs they grew, and what they have learned about just enough.

In truth, Veterans Affairs has undergone something of a greening in recent years. The medical center here is proud of its affiliation with the Planetreeorganization, a nonprofit network that offers a patient-centered, holistic approach to health care. And one result of that approach over the past year was something quite simple — the recognition that by learning to grow food for one another, veterans might learn a good deal more.

It began with Jan Zientek, who specializes in urban gardening with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Roseland, and Thurston Mangrum, a 70-year-old Air Force veteran, who was in a substance abuse treatment program at the medical center.

Five years ago, Mr. Mangrum took a course that Mr. Zientek taught to residents of the Newark Housing Authority and later joined its master gardener program.

Mr. Mangrum figured, even with severe limitations of space, why not do something similar at the medical center? The veterans did some landscaping and ground work and then began tilling 20-by-50-foot plots between the buildings that had been converted from grass to raised vegetable beds.

This summer, veterans harvested more than 1,000 pounds of produce, which was given to other patients at the center and also used at the Foxhole Cafe at the veterans’ medical center in Lyons. Using hoop houses covered by plastic tarp, they grow crops like kale and collard greens well into the winter. There will be more crops next year, with thoughts of perhaps finding ways to sell them at farmers’ markets.

For many of the veterans, the experience has been less about growing food and more about learning about themselves. So Mr. Mourning has felt a special kinship with Josh Urban, a 30-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He had also found himself isolated, unable to fully reintegrate into the world outside the war zone, until tilling the soil with his fellow veterans helped him make his peace with life back home.

Patrick Corcoran, who served with the Marines in Lebanon, said: “It just lowers the volume in my head. It allows me to think on a rational level.”

With two protracted wars at a time when military suicides are at record levels, with psychic and physical damage on a scale threatening to swamp the veterans’ system, an urban garden at one medical center gets you only so far. Mr. Mourning shudders at today’s multiple tours of duty and thinks veterans desperately need a job corps for training and finding work.

Still, if it’s a blip on the big picture, the program has been a godsend for the veterans here. “It’s been my salvation,” Mr. Mangrum said. Which is why on Thanksgiving, he brought home some of the last of this year’s garden — the winter parsley and basil, collard greens and turnip greens — and on Thursday, in the most personal of ways, gave thanks.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com


6 Feb
Iraq Gardens. Letter from a Physician 2010

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive

The following letter was received Feb. 2013 from Dr. Rachel Wasserman. It was originally written in 2010.


Hello Professor Kenneth Helphand,

 I read Defiant Gardens recently and it hit home. I have been a career Army Officer, physician and amateur gardener for over thirty years. In that time, I have read thousands of books related to these pursuits, but yours was the first that I came across that was so relevant to all three. In the spirit of the book, I am sending you some photos related to war time gardening and an essay that I sent to family and friends during my last tour to Iraq. I don’t usually send unsolicited mail to persons I have not met, but I hope you will take a look at it and if you do a sequel you can use what was sent.  I really enjoyed the book.  Thanks for writing such an original and thoughtful work.


Below is a copy of my writing.


It was a little short of midnight when I finished up spreading the large mound of earth in the area that I had hoped would be the future vegetable patch and completed the much needed watering of the hospital courtyard garden. I was working by the light of the moon and the bright lights in the front of the hospital, but in the darkened corner of the garden where I was putting the final touches on the soon to be pumpkin mound I could still see the stars in the sky. Although the days often blended together, I would have known even without a calendar or the change in weather that nearly seven months had passed since I had come to Iraq when I saw the Scorpion rising barely visible above the eastern horizon. Looking into the sky and measuring the passage of time in much the same way as the first gardeners of this land, I felt a personal connection to this place that had been the birthplace of my people, and the profound irony that truly but for the grace of God, who had told Abraham to leave and seek his destiny elsewhere, that I might be sharing the fate of the populace beyond the razor wire topped earthen and concrete fortifications of FOB Diamondback. I could imagine that over a thousand years after Abraham headed to Canaan, that a very distant ancestor of mine could have been here in Nineveh province, the reluctant guest of Assyrian or Babylonian conquerors, or a voluntary member of the resultant Diaspora that lead to Iraq having a very large and long established Jewish community until the late 1940s when many were forced to flee to the re-born state of Israel and beyond. And here I was, returning to the origin, like the circling constellations above, a part of another cycle of history. When the Hunter rose in the early morning eastern sky, it would be time to redeploy home. Turning my gaze from the sky to the earth, I placed my shovel in the corner and headed off to shower and then to bed. Tomorrow would be another day in the clinic and there would be sunflowers to plant after the blazing sun went down in the evening.

It was only a patch of green, but in a situation where none of us at the 47th Combat Support Hospital had any control over the events occurring outside the wire and very little over what happened inside it, that hospital garden was more than just a project that I and a few other green thumb types did to pass the time. It represented a source of peace and order, a symbol of life in defiance of the chaos and destruction that surrounded us in Mosul back in 2006. Many of the patients, staff, and passersby found it therapeutic to walk through or sit and relax amongst the green and bright colors of the trees, grass, and flowers while watching the antics of the sparrows and chickadee like bulbuls that gathered by the fountain and snatched insects with aerobatic grace. I remember one Englishman, a member of a private security firm who was recovering from wounds received in an ambush that had killed his friend, remark that the roses were beautiful and his friend, who had been an avid gardener, would have liked to have seen them. Although he was sad about losing his “mate”, the fragrant roses reminded him of the good times they had shared and that helped as he tried to get himself emotionally and physically ‘back in the game’. On happier occasions, I enjoyed seeing the smiling faces of the infantrymen of the 172nd Stryker Brigade who often told me that it was so nice to see the rows of sunflowers that grew over the tops of the T-walls surrounding the hospital when they returned to the FOB from a mission. It made it feel a little bit like coming home.

Attempts to make the garden more like a typical American suburban one sometimes resulted in unexpected reactions that were darkly humorous and a precautionary tale of why doing an episode in Iraq of ‘Surprise Gardener’ would not be a good idea for now. Captain Warshak’s young daughter had mailed him a concrete stepping stone complete with hand print and ‘ I love you Daddy’ scratched into the surface. When CPT Warshak asked if I would put it in the garden, I said yes, it would be my pleasure to give it pride of place and I put it in the pumpkin patch that evening. The next morning I was confronted by one of the sergeants from the tactical operations center who wanted me to verify that it was meant to be there and not an IED disguised as an innocent kid’s expression of love for her father. For a moment I had visions of the MPs barricading the CSH as it was evacuated and EOD called in to investigate the nefarious stepping stone. “Yes, it’s just a stepping stone from CPT Warshak’s kid”. I said.  “Are you sure?” was the reply. “Of course, I am. I put it there”, jumping up and down on the stone to emphasize that short of hitting him in the head with the step, it was a non-lethal device. Another time, I inadvertently scared Khalil, one of our interpreters, nearly out of his wits by watering the grass. Khalil also liked to garden and he had planted the roses when the hospital was first built in 2004. He had just gotten through raking up the leaves prior to me watering the grass. Rich had sent me an adjustable sprinkler head so I would not need to spend as much time hand watering and I had put it behind some tiles to keep it near by the faucet and hose but hidden from sight so it would not ‘walk off’. When I heard Khalil give a desperate yell ” No, Ma’am, put it down” and saw him cringe, I wondered what was going on. “Put what down?”  “The grenade, Ma’am”. “The grenade…Khalil, this is a sprinkler head. You know, to water the grass”. Doing my best not to cause him more embarrassment by bursting out laughing, I did agree that the olive drab and black cylindrical head attached to a metallic spike did bear a close resemblance to a certain Russian made anti-personnel device. I made it a point after those experiences to not order any garden gnomes and to tell folks in advance about any changes in the landscaping and equipment.

MAJ Stephens, our XO, met me one day walking down the main road and asked what I was doing  carrying two armfuls of tomato plants and zinnias. There was a small contingent of minor league horticulturalists on the FOB and we often exchanged or just gave away extra plants to anyone interested in livening up the otherwise drab and unwelcoming environment we lived in. I told him I was taking the seedlings to the Turks who ran one of the souvenir shops. He commented it seemed strange growing tomatoes in Iraq. I said planting tomatoes in Iraq had been going on for centuries; planting bombs was what was really strange. But he had a point; sometimes it is the ordinary that seems out of place when deployed. Wearing baggy black PT pants and Gray PT Jacket, I must have looked like an ordinary gardener to the young Iraqi policeman who was recovering from a bad gunshot wound to the right arm. I had seen him sitting on the bench in the garden on several occasions for more than a week while I was doing weeding, watering, and pruning on my free time. One day he was sitting on the garden bench with an Iraqi interpreter who had suffered a blood clot deep in the veins of a leg that had been damaged several months earlier by gun shots and was being started on blood thinning agents to prevent formation of new thrombi that could go to his lungs and kill him. Both were chain smoking like typical Iraqis. Putting down my hose and pruning shears and putting on my physician persona, I went up to the interpreter and said they should not be smoking on general principles but he needed to stop right now. The interpreter laughed and said he knew. I was not the first doc to admonish him on that. I told him in his case it could cause another DVT and kill him. The interpreter laughed at that too, stating that once he left the FOB, it would be a tossup whether the risk from smoking was worse than the risk of being on the Coumadin given the origin of the major predisposing factor of his current state. Smiling back, I said suit yourself, but make sure you and the other guy pick up your butts. I didn’t want them in the flower beds.

Then the young looking Iraqi policeman said something to the interpreter. When I asked the interpreter what he said, he told me that the guy wanted to know if he could work for me as an assistant gardener, he was tired of being shot at for the money he was making as a lowly jundi (private). I replied through the interpreter that I was a doctor at the hospital, I could not offer him a job, that this was a hobby. He shrugged and said he had left his farm in a poor village near the Syrian border in search of a better living but he had been on the job for only a few months when one of the members of his police department turned out to be an insurgent and he got shot stopping the insurgent from carrying out a suicide attack. He asked if he could help in the garden even if it wasn’t for pay. It would be good to do something to take his mind off of recent events; it was so hard to know who to trust. I replied through the interpreter, that I would be happy to have his help and I knew how he felt about it being difficult to trust people as I handed him the hose to water the flowers, while I picked up the sharp pruning shears to remove the dead canes and spent flowers from the roses. For the next few days, until he was discharged, we would garden for an hour or two in companionable silence but able to communicate by gesture and a common fondness for growing things. I never did find out if he returned to the police force or back to the farm.

The hospital staffers who enjoyed gardening or who were at least willing to pitch in to water the flowers and grass that made the courtyard a place of unexpected serenity formed the “Mosul Chapter of The Guns and Roses Gardening Club”. Though thankfully we never had to rely upon our guns to keep insurgent forces at bay, I was personally tempted to use mine on certain minions of Kellogg, Brown, & Root from time to time. One of those times occurred after KBR was called upon to do contractually required grounds maintenance and they mowed the lawn nearly down to the ground with weed whackers. They must have been from the General Curtis Lemay School of lawn care because they seemed to believe that in order to mow the lawn it was necessary to nearly destroy it!  It was a good thing the work crew wasn’t there when I saw the devastation otherwise I might have done something that would have reflected poorly on the Army but would have been satisfying on the personal level as well as sparing the armorer, SPC Burrowes, from having to account for my combat load of 9mm rounds when I was redeployed to my next assignment at the Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. With a lot of fluid resuscitation the grass was rescued in spite of the blazing sun and heat. Another KBR employee became the focus of my ire when he who took it upon himself to be a water conservation Nazi while I was on leave. Seems he thought we were using too much water for the garden. While I very much understood the need for water conservation given that the water had to be trucked in at considerable effort, expense, and even some danger, our usage had not been greater than the unit that we replaced and it was poor form to cut my hoses and disable the water pump without prior notice. It was pointed out to his supervisor that not only was it rude to do this without communication; it was also unwise to prevent us from using a water spigot that could be used for general cleaning and emergency firefighting.

Upon returning from leave, I saw that the pumpkins had perished, the grass was brown, and the flower beds were just barely surviving in the dry 120 F heat thanks to the club members using water bottles and buckets to bring water to the beds at least a few times a week.  I heard the tale of woe from MAJ Haskins and MAJ Gainok, who had tried to keep the garden in top shape in my absence but had not been able to get the water issue resolved in spite of promises by KBR to quickly act upon work orders to hook up an alternative water supply using the non-potable water used to keep dust down on the roads. When using NCO channels and polite phone calls did not work, I took on the task to win the water war. Mounting the beat up modified golf cart that served as our ‘tactical vehicle’, my driver and I donned our Kevlar helmets and roared out of the hospital parking lot at a blazing 5 mph, the top speed on that high performance beast, to assault the ‘enemy’ HQ and come back with the paperwork completed or being carried upon it in a heroic quest to save the flowers. It was a good thing the employee who had started this mess wasn’t there when we arrived at the KBR help desk. Though I had intended to give a fuming speech to that guy about the poor customer service for the billions that KBR was getting at the largesse of the taxpayer, I soon got sidetracked into being Marcus Welby, MD when I ran into a couple of employees who I had seen as patients and started doing curbside consulting in spite of my attempt to be an avenging crusader and pissed off brass. Probably that was just as well, because soon I had some sympathetic allies who brought in their supervisors to take care of my problem. I let the management know that we had not gotten the promised water source and the specific hoses that were destroyed belonged to me. If they did not want me to lodge a complaint about wanton destruction of private property they needed to either replace them or compensate me. The water supply was reestablished a few days later and I received new hoses. It was also implied that if a certain employee continued to have a bad attitude towards serving military customers he would be given the chance to find alternative job opportunities.  I guess the words ‘private property’ and ‘filing charges’ resonated with KBR supervisors. Though the garden had taken a beating, the flowers survived. Mission Accomplished.

When recalling what my most worthwhile achievements were during my first tour in Iraq, that garden may have been amongst my best. It was with this in mind that I had planned on doing something similar when I returned in 2009. Knowing that I was deploying once again with the 47th Combat Support Hospital made the idea all the more fitting. Thinking how it seemed that every time I tried to start a communal garden project back in the States, I got deployed, it would be ideal to do a large scale area beautification project when I got to Al-Asad Air Base. After all what could go wrong, I would already be deployed to Iraq. So I got command approval for the project, drew up plans, organized volunteers, requested T-walls for murals and painted gravel, a bench and had Rich ship 750 seed starter pods. Then about two weeks after starting the seeds, prepping the ground, getting the gravel, designing the mural, etc. I was ordered to Balad to be the Command Battalion Surgeon for the 61st Multi-Functional Medical Battalion, a unit providing medical planning and logistics support for outpatient clinics throughout Iraq. Guess you can be deployed from a deployment!! 

MAJ Greta Collier, who was my battle buddy back at the 47th CSH in Al-Asad, and made sure I hit the Gym on a regular basis, tells me that everything is sprouting well to include the cantaloupe that I planted for SSG Brad Averitt who was unimpressed with the quality of the melons at the DFAC. But when I get a chance to go back to Al-Asad I can only hope that something will have survived, let alone thrived, in my absence. I was told that the garden in Mosul has reverted back to scraggly grass and tough eucalyptus trees. Perhaps in the future someone else will come along and see the potential in the wasteland and put in the effort to make it flourish. On a vastly larger scale Iraq itself is like that garden. It has the potential in terms natural resources and people to thrive, but it will require the right vision and will to harness it. If the Iraqi national elections go off as planned 15 January 2010, I will have a front row seat to observe whether the seeds of democracy that were planted here with Sadaam’s fall in 2003 will continue to grow or revert back to the weed patch of dictatorship and sectarian strife.



Rochelle Wasserman, MD



2 Nov
Fanciful Gardens Emerge in a City of Tan and Gray

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive


Joao Silva for The New York Times

Muhi Mohammed Hussein trimmed an eagle-shaped topiary sculpture at the entrance to his home in Baghdad on Friday.

Khalil Abbas says people come to his nursery from all over Baghdad and the rest of Iraq now that security has improved.


Top of FormNew York Times      November 1, 2009


BAGHDAD — Khalil Abbas has worked with plants since he was 7 years old, and his tree nursery could be a barometer of Iraq’s changing fortunes. During the 1970s, when Iraqis enjoyed a flood of oil money, customers flocked to him to supply elaborate gardens, buying plants imported from Jordan and Syria, Mr. Abbas said. Then after the American invasion of 2003, business came to a halt.

“When the situation was dangerous, people from other neighborhoods were unable to come here, and we couldn’t go there,” he said.

On a recent morning Mr. Abbas, 58, sat in an office that was surrounded by sicus palms, ficus trees, gardenias, fruit trees and other plants. As security has improved, he said, people have been buying plants again, coming to the nursery in the Jadriya neighborhood not only from other parts of Baghdad but also from around the country. Business has multiplied eightfold since 2005, including brisk sales in small sicus palms, which cost about $350.

“A lot of people are getting money from the government,” he said, “so it’s not just embassies buying. Now regular people buy as well.”

Gardens remain one of the few flourishes of public ornament on Baghdad’s otherwise brown streets, defiant displays of foliage amid concrete blast walls and security checkpoints. And in its middle-class neighborhoods, Baghdad is a city of surprising topiary sculptures: leafy ficus trees are carved in geometric spirals, balls, arches and squares, as if to impose order on a chaotic sprawl. The trees provide a startling counterpoint of color and contour to the uniformly tan and rectilinear houses and walls surrounding them.

“This is our kingdom, our home,” said Mohammed al-Khalidy, an electrical engineer, standing in his garden, where ficus trees carved like deconstructed snowmen flank the street.

Mr. Khalidy has worked for American agencies, and he said that as a result he had received death threats and that three cars had been destroyed at his home. His windows still bear masking tape X’s, to prevent them from shattering easily.

“This is where we have our relaxation,” he said, speaking English. “There is no safe location where we can go.”

Even during the high periods of sectarian violence, he said, he and his family entertained guests in the garden. “Of course,” he said. “What can we do?”

During the worst years, he said, it was difficult to buy plants, so the family used clippings to fill out the garden. Even when car bombs were exploding in the neighborhood, his mother insisted on watering the garden daily. “We didn’t change,” he said.

For Falah Mohammed, standing beneath a massive topiary arch by his driveway, the improved security in Baghdad has brought its own problem: he cannot find a gardener with enough time to take care of his trees. His quiet street is lined with neat gardens.

“The gardener used to come every day,” said Mr. Mohammed, who runs a flour factory. “Now he only comes two times a month because he has too much work.”

Mr. Mohammed said he never had trouble getting plants, because he lived near enough to Mr. Abbas’s nursery. But the costs of maintaining his garden have risen.

“Before, it was very cheap, $10 a visit,” he said. “Now he’s asking $100 to come two times a month.”

Topiaries are not traditional in Iraq, said Salwa Nori, an agricultural engineer and garden designer. She said that she closed her business for two years during the violent times, but that since late 2006 it has been growing.

“It comes from Europe or wherever people travel, and they bring it back,” she said. “And now it comes from the Internet and satellite channels.”

Though Iraqis began experimenting with topiary gardens in the 1990s, they have become popular only in recent years, and only in wealthy neighborhoods.

“Right now, the provinces are getting interested, it’s not just the capital,” Ms. Nori said. Still, she said, even in Baghdad, “There are a lot of beautiful gardens but the people are out of the country” because of the violence.

On a battered street in the middle-class neighborhood of Zayouna, Muhi Mohammed Hussein trimmed an elaborate plant sculpture in the shape of an eagle in front of his home. Flanking it were bushes shaped like corkscrews, flowers and straw baskets, which he said took him four or five months to create using wire frames to form the shapes.

When sectarian violence was at its peak, he said, people in Baghdad were not interested in his work, so he left for Dubai and the northern city of Erbil. But now there is a place in Baghdad for his creations, he said.

“Iraq has suffered for a long time, so now I’m trying to give a smile back to Iraq with beautiful plants,” he said.

For Mazen Hammad, who works for the Ministry of Health, his garden was a refuge from the violence. Mr. Hammad talked among hedges carved like the battlements of a castle.

“When the situation was bad, I took care of the garden more than when it’s good,” he said. “When you take care of the garden, you forget the war. But when the situation is good, you’re too busy with work.”

Mr. Abbas, who runs the nursery, said a recent trend was for people to buy seedlings, intending to carve their names into the leaves when the trees grow up. Iraq’s topiary gardens, he said, are just beginning.

Not far from his nursery, the wrecked frame of a building testified to the effects of a car bomb, but amid his trees Mr. Abbas was serene. Still, he said, he does not like to see a beautiful tree overshadowed by an ugly concrete blast wall. “It’s a big disaster,” he said.


27 May
Green Grass in Iraq

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive

Green Grass in Iraq

27 May
Defiant Gardens: Connecting Families and Communities

Posted by Kenneth Helphand in the Iraq archive

Defiant Gardens: Connecting Families and Communities
The deployment of soldiers overseas places stress on children, spouses and the community at large.  But there are some promising approaches to fostering resilience among military families and communities, including nature-based activities and Civic Ecology Education, where youth and adults partner to enhance the local environment, form long-term relationships, learn about natural science and get exercise.
Defiant Gardens is a program of the Military Families Project, a partnership between Cornell Cooperative Extension Association of Jefferson County, Cornell University Department of Natural Resources and The Growing Connection (TGC), a grassroots project developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (http://www.thegrowingconnection.org). The Military Families Project will investigate the ability of a multi-generational Civic Ecology Education program to help communities deal with the stress of the military deployment cycle. The Military Families Project is funded by monies from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Hatch Act. Implementation of the Defiant Gardens program was made possible by a grant from the Jefferson County Department of Social Services.
Robert Patterson, Senior Liaison Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, will be presenting Fort Drum’s Hearts Apart Community and Container Gardening Club with 12 EarthBox container garden kits for use in the Defiant Gardens program, purchased by Cornell University’s Initiative for Civic Ecology. Patterson will be teaching Hearts Apart members about the EarthBox system at 12:00 p.m. Thursday, May 14, 2009 at Army Community Service (ACS), P-4330 Conway Road. Members of Hearts Apart will then plant vegetables in the containers the group will tend throughout the summer. The planting is expected to end by 2:00 p.m.
Joining Patterson will be Keith G. Tidball, Associate Director of Cornell University’s Initiative for Civic Ecology (http://krasny.dnr.cornell.edu/pages/ce.php) and Stephanie Graf, Youth and Family Development Program Leader, Cornell Cooperative Extension Association of Jefferson County.
The ACS container garden is one of eight Defiant Gardens the Military Families Project will plant in Jefferson County. These gardens are sites where children and families, both military and civilian, can share their experiences and bond as community members during the school year and throughout the summer. Four additional gardens will be planted in deployment-affected communities across New York State such as Buffalo and Utica.
Kenneth Helphand, author of the book Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, defines defiant gardens as “gardens created in extreme or difficult environmental, social, political, economic, or cultural conditions. These gardens represent adaptation to challenging circumstances, but they can also be viewed . . . as sites of assertion and affirmation.”
Youth from military families and their parents, retired soldiers, neighbors, and friends will plant Defiant Gardens at sites donated by American Legions, VFW Posts, schools, and other civic organizations. The partnerships formed by children, veterans, and other community members will assist families in navigating the deployment cycle.  These children will also connect with their parents overseas by sharing their gardening successes through regular emails, weekly phone calls, social networking websites such as Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) and MySpace (http://www.myspace.com), and our Defiant Gardens blog (http://defiantgardens.blogspot.com -or- http://defiantgardens-jefferson.blogspot.com/ ).
Ideal participants in the program will be military families with middle-school aged students with one or more parent in the deployment cycle (deploying, deployed, or recently returned from deployment), spouses of soldiers in the cycle, veterans, community members and non-military families, civic leaders, teachers, and members of school administrations. Participants will benefit from the project by creating community support networks for military families, allowing military families to educate the community on deployment issues, creating a communication connection between the children and their deployed soldier, increasing military families’ resiliency as they navigate the deployment cycle, and assisting the families with the reunion and reintegration process.
For more information regarding the Defiant Gardens program, please call Keith G. Tidball at Cornell University at 607-254-5479, or 315/788.8450 and speak with Jeremiah Maxon at x 260 or Holly Sakowich at x 229 of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.

24 Jul
SSG Poukka 31 Dec 2004

Posted by admin in the Iraq archive

This note was in answer  to my e-mail regarding their garden:

.. the garden idea was just something we thought we’d try, the Iraqi people grow a very big variety of produce. Our garden was grown right out in front of our house. Permission was not needed. The soil is not sand as everybody seems to think, it is more of a brown dirt, and when watered it gets very hard, almost like clay. When it is driven on over and over, it turns to a fine powder, about like flower, and when you drive on it it flows from the tires like water. We didn’t have a very good crop, our sunflowers and cucs did very well but couldn’t get onions to do much, and the corn got really big but evidentally it didn’t pollinate. . .

24 Jul
SGT Carl J Quam Jr Iraq North Dakota National Guard

Posted by admin in the Iraq archive

iraq-sergeants-justin-wanzek-and-carl-quam-jr-pose-with-their-corn-crop-at-fob-speicher-in-iraqphoto-sgt-amy-dobler.jpgiraq-photo-sgt-amy-dobler.jpgThis note was in answer  to my e-mail regarding their garden:

I came up with the idea, along with Sgt Wanzek, because we were missing home, farming, and the joy of growing something. We had a spell when supply lines were all but cut by the insurgents, and I said we might be able to grow our own vegetables, since the MREs dont have them and the supply trucks werent making it to our FOB. Friends of myself and SGT Wanzek, named Nathan and Stacy Hoehn in Valley City, ND, had the seeds donated by the Valley City Nursery. The Hoehns also sent over some garden hose and a sprinkler, the sprinker we didn’t use. We learned from the locals to irrigate with deep trenches and let the water soak into the dirt in between. At 140 degrees air temperature, I suspect the water would have evaporated before it hit the ground. Sgt Wanzek has garden experience and my wife, children and I put one in every year. It is good family time and maybe in a way, the garden helped me kind of cope with missing them. I caught myself drifting back to home with the 4 of us all spending quality family time in our garden. We are both very proud of what we accomplished, as Sgt Dobler’s article said, we had enough corn, beans and carrots than we could eat and started giving them away. We got a lot of looks from people and they thought it was quite an idea. I do have to add that this was done in our spare time. At the time of garden prep, planting, weeding and watering, Sgt Wanzek and myself, along with the rest of our crew, were running 4-6 combat patrols a week, in 100-140 degree weather. When we came back to our area, we had a hard time getting motivated to work and weed, but we did. Like I said, it was good therapy to relax after a day of dodging roadside bombs, RPGs and escorting semi trucks full of unexploded ordinance over the worst stretch of road in northern Iraq. The best pictures are the ones Sgt Dobler took, but both Sgt Wanzek and I would be more than proud if you use them. We are currently in Kuwait, now, waiting for a flight home. WE MADE IT!!!!!!! That is all that matters to us anymore. Out of Iraq and out of danger. . .

24 Jul
Gardeners shed blood to beautify Baghdad

Posted by admin in the Iraq archive

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Newspapers
Dec. 26, 2006

jaafar-hamid-al-ali-baghdadparks-supervisor.jpgJaafar Hamid al Ali, supervisor of Baghdad Parks, in Zawraa Park, the only operating park in the Iraqi capital.BAGHDAD — The flowers appear overnight, and in the unlikeliest of places: carnations near a checkpoint, roses behind razor wire, and gardenias in a square known for suicide bombings.

Sometimes, U.S. armored vehicles hop a median and mow down the myrtle, leaving Baghdad parks workers to fume and reach for their trowels. When insurgents poured kerosene over freshly planted seedlings, landscapers swore a revenge of ficus trees and olive groves.

It’s all part of a stealthy campaign to turn the entire capital into a green zone.

Jaafar Hamid al Ali, the Baghdad parks supervisor, leads the offensive. He’s got a multi-million-dollar budget, along with 1,500 intrepid employees and a host of formidable enemies. There’s the fussy climate, salty soil, and nonstop violence that killed 30 of his workers in 2006. Every fallen gardener, Ali said, is a martyr in the struggle to beautify Baghdad.

“My principle is, for every drop of Iraqi blood, we must plant something green,” he said. “One gives disappointment, the other gives hope.”

Ali, 62, cuts a dapper figure among Iraqi bureaucrats. One recent chilly afternoon at his headquarters at Zawraa Park, the only operating park in Baghdad, he wore a knee-length hounds-tooth overcoat, a navy Yves St. Laurent jacket, and spit-shined shoes. Someone had scribbled a flower on the nameplate that hangs on his office door.

He’s a French-educated former professor who can recount by memory the history of flora in Iraq. The supposed site of the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon lies just 50 miles south of where he works.

Ottoman rulers established the first official public parks, some of which remained open well into the 1920s, Ali said. In the 1930s, the Baghdad city council built a few more parks and for the next four decades worked toward a goal of allotting 160 square feet of green space for each resident. By the 1970s, they’d reached 85 square feet per person.

“Our ambition was to hit the international standard by the 1980s,” al-Ali said. “But then came the Iraq-Iran war.”

Frequent power interruptions during the eight-year war left Baghdad residents with no way to heat their homes in the winter. Ali, by that time a high-ranking parks employee, had overseen the planting of a large forest in the Furat neighborhood. It took 12 years for the acacia, casuarina and eucalyptus to mature, he said, and just one night for locals to chop down half the forest for firewood.

“I found them still dragging the wood away,” he recalled. “I had a stroke. I had to go straight to the hospital.”

He recovered, but Baghdad parks did not. The Gulf War in 1991 dealt a fresh blow. Ali watched with fury as Saddam Hussein rewarded his generals by issuing presidential orders that turned the people’s parks into his cronies’ private gardens.

By the time U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam in 2003, there were just 5 square feet of park space for each Baghdad resident. Acacias and tall date palms still lined many avenues in the capital — until insurgents began firing on U.S. troops from the brush.

Coalition forces razed acres of palm groves, Ali said, partly for security and partly to widen the passageways for their hulking armored personnel carriers. Airport Road, once one of the loveliest of thoroughfares, remains a barren ribbon of knee-high palm stumps.

“We had big hopes of restoring greenery to Baghdad right after the fall of the regime,” Ali said. “Unfortunately, the friendly forces contributed to destroying what very little was left.”

Ali had written off parks work as futile and had become a successful businessmen and a member of the Mansour neighborhood council. Yet he couldn’t shake thoughts of his boyhood home, with a courtyard in the middle. His father tended the family’s grapevines, flowers and fruit trees. The fragrance still wafts through Ali’s memory.

In 2004, he succumbed to his passion, took a pay cut and signed a contract to become supervisor of Baghdad parks. The task seemed ludicrous to many Iraqis living in the throes of war, but he couldn’t bear to see his city hidden behind blast walls and coils of concertina wire. The gray, bullet-scarred tableau gnaws at the soul, he said, and makes war seem permanent.

“This,” he declared, “is the right time for flowers.”

Ali spent most of that first year simply refurbishing the city’s nurseries, which had been destroyed by looters in the days after Saddam’s ouster. He ordered seeds from Syria, and his staff performed tests to find the hardiest plants to withstand the rigors of war.

The parks’ shoestring budget didn’t allow for much visible improvement. But 2005 brought the serendipitous appointment of a new Baghdad City Council chairman, who happened to be an agricultural engineer. Ali had found a kindred spirit.

The budget allotment for parks was increased, and Ali immediately set his sights on Baghdad’s abandoned, litter-strewn traffic squares and medians. Workers planted two million flowers, shrubs and trees in the past year, he said, exposing themselves to gunfire and car bombs in the process. Insurgents intimidated many gardeners into leaving their work; others were killed.

“The so-called resistance doesn’t want cleanliness or gardens. They want Baghdad to stay like this, neglected,” Ali said. “It just makes us more defiant.”

Still, the obstacles are myriad. At the Zawraa Park nursery, just opposite from a military recruiting center that’s a favored target for bombers, workers said they frequently pick bullets and shrapnel from their fragile cuttings. Explosions have shattered the office windows three times in recent months.

Outside the compound, Ali spent a fortune on the latest in sprinkler systems only to see them go dry because the lack of electricity severs the water supply. Within a week, he said, the plants wither up and must be replaced. To keep them alive, workers have to call in water tankers and spray the flowers the old-fashioned way.

None of this appears to daunt Ali. Even as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis flee the war, he talks of flowering trees, picnic areas and playgrounds. While corpses float on top of the Tigris River, he’s more concerned with the rich soil underneath. He’s putting the final touches on a long-term plan to build 15 new parks in some of the most violent neighborhoods of Baghdad. Another proposal calls for the construction of a “green belt” that will surround the capital with trees, six rows deep.

For now, the fruits of the parks department’s labor are visible mostly in relatively safe Shiite Muslim neighborhoods such as Karrada and Shoala. That’s changing, Ali promised, with a new campaign that targets the predominantly Sunni western side of the capital known as Karkh.

Karkh Park currently exists only in a blueprint that shows a verdant plot with a shopping mall in the middle, but Ali already offers cash bonuses for field managers who show him progress in the insurgent-ridden area.

Ali beamed as he recounted how parks employees have slipped into the dangerous Doura and Mansour districts armed with seeds that one day will blossom into vibrant gerbera.

“It’s like stealing,” he said. “When we see nobody is around, we run in, plant and escape. You see, when you have the will, anything is possible.”