ARLINGTON, Va. — There’s a garden at the Fort Benning Soldier Recovery Unit in Georgia that yields more than vegetables, herbs and flowers. It also gives transitioning Soldiers joy as they tend to plants, such as corn, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Capt. Cheonchong Kim, chaplain at the Fort Benning SRU, said that the garden took root during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and served as a way for Soldiers to interact outside while social distancing. It also creates opportunities for him to share spiritual and life lessons.
“I intentionally use gardening illustrations so that they can think about those things as they work on the gardens throughout the week,” Kim said.
Soldiers experience challenges throughout recovery and transition, and gardening builds resiliency, he said.
“One of my goals in our garden group is to help Soldiers be deeply rooted in their set of beliefs, principles and values,” Kim said. “One’s clarity in those things will help them recover and overcome.”
Kevin Peoples, transition coordinator with the Fort Benning SRU, noted how it ties into one of the Six Domains of Strength in the Comprehensive Recovery Plan that supports transitioning Soldiers.
“As I see it, gardening and the Spiritual Domain of Strength cultivates an inner healing like no other,” Peoples said. “I’m an advocate for the program as some Soldiers can’t focus on the Career Domain, which is the domain transition [coordinators] work with Soldiers on.”
Soldiers grow their favorite assortment of plants, including watermelon, eggplant, sweet potatoes, kale, okra, peppermint, rosemary and sunflowers.
“I encourage them to experiment with new vegetables and herbs,” Kim said. “I call our raised gardens, our ‘experimental labs.’”
Kim said it can be challenging for the Soldiers to experience the entire gardening cycle from planting to harvesting; however, they fostered a culture where participants pass their gardens on to fellow Soldiers when they transition.
The garden offers a number of benefits. Kim said it helps them experience the joy associated with seeing growth and results through labor. It also assists them with building connections and assembling new communities.
The garden is also ripe with nostalgia. For some participants, it brings up memories of their homes or childhoods that remind them of who they are and help them cope with separation, Kim said.
“The garden becomes a little piece of home as many [Soldiers] are separated from their families for an extended amount of time,” he said.
Lt. Col. Jason Carter has gardened for more than 40 years. It also runs in his family; his mother is a master gardener and he’s a master gardener apprentice. He is currently assigned to the Fort Benning SRU, but back home, he grows food that he freezes and cans.
“I have a garden back home and it’s my happy place,” he said.
He enjoys the Fort Benning SRU garden where he planted eggplant, corn, squash, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes.
Kim said that gardening draws families closer as they share common experiences, tell stories and exchange photos. It also spurs conversations with spouses or parents.
Another neat thing about the program is that Soldiers don’t have to participate to reap the benefits.
“Our raised gardens began to transform the whole atmosphere of the SRU,” Kim said. “As people walked around the barracks, they enjoy the variety of the plants and flowers in our garden.”