Hugh Roberts, Program Coordinator for the Veterans Victory Gardens Program with his wife, best friend, and rock, Colby Melissa Roberts
It was a warm and humid day in May 2017 when I first met Hugh Roberts. I had been invited to teach a Permaculture Design Course at Green Mountain College and Hugh, a non-traditional student who had just returned from the war in Afghanistan had signed up for my course. A Corporal in the Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 16 Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas with the United States Army sat in the Farmhouse at the college, hands and arms tattooed with images of rifles, crossed over his broad chest where his beard had grown to since he left the war. I wasn’t sure what to expect. His quiet demeanor and strong presence was a bit intimidating and I only hoped that he would be receptive to the lessons and possibilities permaculture provided. On our second day of class at his request, he opened our day by reading the poem Tommy by Rudyard Kipling, a story of a solider who is treated with respect when off fighting a war and disrespected and forgotten when he is not, and through tears, honesty and vulnerability he shared that day, I saw a brave man choose to open up and Hugh’s permaculture journey began.
“Coming into permaculture I had no idea of the depth of personal exploration I would have to do! Being open and honest about the impact we have on our environment and being unafraid to express my personal needs for self-care have helped tremendously in returning to a non-military life. The commonalities I share with former strangers during the permaculture design course, opened my ability to accept that I am not just connected to Veterans and to my family, but can see that any stage of life, or experience, we can all work together and achieve great things as a group,” Hugh said. In class, Hugh worked with fellow students to embrace all members of the community, including veterans, and to look at the principles of permaculture as a way to connect those with limited access to soil, land and healthy food to those abundant in resources and knowledge. He began to see the opportunity for him to get involved, to become a bridge between the veteran community and the college, and to lead by example. “As a veteran I need to lead from the front and not sit back and observe the problems faced by our communities and the veterans and families. If I don’t stand up who will?”
When the students were asked to utilize their newly developed permaculture design skills to begin a project that supports resiliency and restoration of the local community, Hugh chose to develop a Veterans Victory Garden for the American Legion Post #39 in Poultney, VT just down the road from the college. “I was inspired by the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns of World War II when Great Britain and Northern Ireland struggled to feed the growing Military and civilian needs,” Hugh said. “Today Veterans and their families are food insecure, homeless, and facing a terrible crisis as far as adjusting to being apart from the structure of the military.” Hugh recruited several of his classmates to help design the Veterans Victory Garden and brought students from the college to the Legion, for the first time, to present their design to the members. The Legion Commander, legionnaires, and auxiliary members were inspired by the work and voted to support the implementation of the Veterans Victory Garden for Post #39.
In the months to follow, Hugh continued to share the concept of the Poultney Veterans Victory Garden with other classmates and wrote a paper about it in his Food Justice class. At the same time, I was leading the effort to create Root to Rise, a nonprofit foundation with the mission to support permaculture education and experiential learning beyond the classroom, supporting the transition of permaculture theory into practice and embodiment. I shared Hugh’s story and the work he led in designing a garden for veterans in Poultney with the Board. I knew Hugh was eager to begin the project and was seeking resources to make this garden come to life. In the summer of 2018 with the help of the Dorr Foundation, Root to Rise was able to support Hugh as a permaculture apprentice and provided him with the resources to continue the Veterans Victory Garden at Post #39. As the work began, Hugh realized that the potential to have a positive impact on the veteran community was not limited to Poultney and suggested that we change the name from the Poultney Veterans Victory Garden to the Veterans Victory Gardens Program, opening up the possibility to design and install gardens for veterans around the region and the country. “I firmly support coming together at the various veterans’ organizations to build gardens, raised beds etc. in order to provide food for each other so we can help heal and provide opportunities for all of us,” Hugh shared.
This fall, the second Permaculture Design class assisted Hugh, who stepped in as the teacher’s aide for the class, in planting apple trees, building raised beds, and sheet mulching the beds in preparation of spring planting. During the process, the Commander at the Fair Haven Legion, just down the road from Poultney, took notice and requested to spend some time with Hugh learning more about permaculture and the Veterans Victory Gardens Program. Inspired by Hugh’s work and the opportunity to support healthy food access to their members, the Fair Haven legion voted unanimously in favor of designing and installing a Veterans Victory Garden. A small group of students are rallying for a group independent study through Green Mountain College, led by Hugh, in the spring of 2019 to design the garden. Root to Rise is now reaching out to local veterans’ organizations in the Littleton/Bethlehem area to connect them to Hugh and the Veterans Victory Gardens Program in hopes of growing the Program to work with more veterans and continuing to support Hugh’s brave journey as the Coordinator for this Program. “Making a difference is all I want at the moment,” Hugh said, “I am reminded of the army values, particularly the value of selfless service; this is selfless. Start an idea rolling then be content with the impact it can have. Best said in the words of the Big Red One, ‘No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great. Duty first!’”
To support Hugh and the growth of the Veterans Victory Gardens Program into more of our local communities and veterans organization, CLICK HERE!!!
Story Written by Stacey Doll, Founder of Root to Rise and Board President. Quotes by Hugh Roberts