Suffering with PTSD, Anne Marie Mucci’s Marine veteran son had retreated from the world. Then, one spring, he helped his mom plant a vegetable garden and, amazingly, he felt an overwhelming sense of calm. As the seedlings grew over the summer, so did his spirit. “We have to share this with other vets,” Anne Marie thought. And so, their backyard project grew into The Veterans Garden — a mission of love and hope. Here, read their story of healing.
A son she didn’t recognize
When Anne Marie Mucci’s son, Jason, returned home after serving four years with the Marines in Iraq, he was a changed man. Struggling with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, he was no longer the outgoing young man she’d kissed goodbye.
“He barely spoke. Didn’t bother with friends or family. He basically went into his bedroom and didn’t come out,” Anne Marie confides to Woman’s World. His depression deepened when a Marine buddy died by suicide. Jason had a warehouse job, but spent most of his time in his room, sleeping, watching TV and playing video games.
Then, one spring day in 2016, Anne Marie decided to plant a vegetable garden in her West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, yard. As she turned shovelful after shovelful of soil, suddenly, Jason came up behind her. “Let me do that,” he offered — and Anne Marie couldn’t have been more shocked or grateful.
The next morning, Jason cranked up the mower and cut the lawn. And the day after that, he trimmed bushes and weeded flowerbeds. Anne Marie sent up a silent prayer of thanks — and she got an idea. If gardening had helped her son, maybe it could help other vets, too.
“If I found a spot, what do you think of planting a bigger garden — one where other vets could come and grow, too?” she asked Jason. Instantly, a smile spread across his face. “Yup, let’s do it!” he said. “I saw the old light in his eyes,” Anne Marie says.
(Click through to read about the teen who helped build a veteran memorial in his hometown.)
Planting seeds of hope with a veterans garden
As Anne Marie searched for a property, she began spreading the word among friends about their plan for a garden for vets. A friend of a friend had just bought a house in town, and impressed by the idea, reached out. “There are four acres I’m not using, take as much as you need.”
Not sure what the response would be, Anne Marie bought enough material to fence in a 30-by-40-foot starter plot. Jason and some other volunteers cleared the weeds and tilled the ground, and his Uncle Bobby showed up with several flats of seedlings. Now all we need are veterans who want to get their hands dirty, Anne Marie thought. She printed up a flier and began visiting veteran centers, the American Legion and VFW.
One of the first to sign up was former National Guardswoman Theresa Poole. “When I was little, I used to try growing tomatoes in buckets on our porch, but I never had any luck,” she told Anne Marie. “I’d love to try again.”
When Jason mentioned the garden in a VA support group, Steve Jakaitis also wanted in. He’d lost his house in a divorce. “I don’t get outdoors enough,” the former infantryman told Anne Marie, and soon he was accompanying her to other veterans’ facilities to spread the word.
Anne Marie assigned plots to each of the vets and supplied garden tools, then left it to them to plant and tend to their gardens. Some decided to grow veggies. Others, flowers. As more vets signed up, Anne Marie put in a fire-pit and brought tables and chairs so the vets could have impromptu gab sessions and cookouts. “It’s a safe place to make friends and share experiences,” Theresa says.
Steve agrees. “You are part of a community. People know what you are going through. Your problems become more manageable,” he explains. “Best of all, you are part of life.” Anne Marie couldn’t be happier.
“More than anything, I wanted this to be a place of healing,” she shares.
Life in full bloom at the Veterans Garden
Over the past seven years, Veterans Garden Inc. (Find them on Facebook and @Veteransgarden on Instagram) has grown to nearly 2 acres and has even started a separate garden whose bounty goes to a local veterans’ kitchen. Excess flowers are donated to the Bridgewater Council on Aging.
One visitor, Iraq veteran Liz Welsch, brought her 11-year-old daughter, Lily, to the Gardens and together, they planted a row of tomatoes and corn. “It’s so calming to dig in the garden and weed — especially with this group of vets,” Liz says.
Recently, the group raised money to put in a wheelchair path with five raised beds for easy access. And they’re about to install a greenhouse so they can extend the gardening season. “Lots of vets get cabin fever and this will get them out earlier,” says Anne Marie.
For many of the vets, coming to the garden is a first step toward rejoining the world. “When you’re working in the garden, all your other thoughts disappear, and you’re only thinking about the garden,” Jason says. “Watching seedlings grow and blossom inspires hope.”
And Anne Marie has seen what hope can do. She watched as Jason began venturing out, reconnecting with friends and rediscovering the joy of living. Today, he continues to garden, often with his wife, Tori, by his side.
“I have my son back, and a wonderful daughter-in-law,” Anne Marie still tears up. “We’re going to keep growing, and I mean that in more ways than one.”
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