Disabled American Veterans cultivate healing garden in San Bernardino – San Bernardino Sun
Richard Valdez is a former Marine helping fellow wounded veterans nourish mind, body and spirit.
Under his guidance, members of Disabled American Veterans, San Bernardino Chapter 12 grabbed their shovels, rakes, and garden hoses and learned how to plant and maintain an organic “wellness” garden of vegetables, herbs, fruit and fruit trees — as part of their healing process.
On a recent Wednesday, I visited the garden, wandered around the raised planters filled with neat rows of plants and visited with some of the veterans there.
The 3/4-acre garden occupies a corner of Speicher Memorial Park on Arden Avenue in San Bernardino.
The veterans’ garden is a gift that keeps on giving.
For the band of brothers, the garden means not only relaxation and wellness for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, but also a way for them to reintegrate into society because a lot of them isolate themselves and are shut-ins.
The garden idea took root more than two years ago.
Since then, they have been harvesting tomatoes, green beans, squash, asparagus, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce and other fresh produce, reaping the benefits of good physical health and sharing with the community.
For Valdez, the Veterans Exploration Garden is part of the solution to a problem he saw at the VA hospital several years ago.
Valdez, 66, was coordinating a rehabilitation group at Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda and noticed some sessions would end in anger or other stress, yet when the group reconvened, the stressed veteran would be completely different.
Why the change? he asked.
“They would say, ‘I tended my roses or lemon trees and that calmed me down.’ So I thought, there are veterans out there who don’t have the chance to do gardening, and maybe we could make it available to them,” Valdez recalled.
I might have had the idea, but the members put it together, Valdez told me.
They keep it alive — make it viable, he said.
Once a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, Valdez was wounded in combat at age 19 while serving in Vietnam.
A graduate of the University of Redlands, the Highland resident has a background in aerospace.
Now the commander of the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans, San Bernardino Chapter 12, he is also California’s commander of disabled veterans, attending meetings on education, housing, homelessness, mental and physical health.
“I absolutely have veterans’ welfare on my mind. A veteran helped me and I’m paying it forward,” Valdez said.
The additional statewide responsibilities demand time and travel away from San Bernardino — and the garden.
Enter his crew of fellow veterans.
As the four of us sat under a shade tree in the garden, Valdez and two other veterans referred to themselves as “the Three R’s,” Richard, Rudy and Ruben.
All three are Purple Heart recipients.
Rudy Venegas, a 65-year-old former Marine, said the garden saved his life.
“This is an outlet to help those who have fallen, are injured or are disabled,” Venegas said.
“Just like war, we’re getting on-the-job training,” he smiled, adding that he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.
Ruben Louis, 65, another former Marine and a 1967 graduate of San Bernardino High School, is on the garden maintenance crew with Venegas.
“We’ll be feeding the plants, transplanting, raking, weeding, watering and gopher-proofing them,” Louis said. “We’d like some help — from service men and women, kids — we appreciate any help we can get.”
They have fun, too.
Each month they host a barbecue at the garden and invite the veterans from the hospital to come and eat as well.
Now the veterans are looking forward to some help they are getting from Home Depot, the Incredible Edible Community Garden, Joe Mosely with the Cal State Veterans Organization and others in the community.
They are anticipating design and installation of cement work, hopefully, by the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
DAV Chapter 12 is comprised of nearly 1,100 members, with a team of about a dozen tending the garden off and on.
Members come from throughout the San Bernardino Valley and the mountain communities.
Since the garden began in January 2012, the land has produced more than 1,000 pounds of produce for veterans, community centers and people who come by.
The wellness garden is truly about the health of the entire community.
Here’s a thought for the day: Do not judge by appearances, a rich heart may be under a poor coat.
For more information or to volunteer, visit www.DAVcal.org.
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