Mark Oravsky, right, and Brent Erwin tackle a project at Victory Farms, where veterans work side by side to regain their sense of purpose, build a solid sense of identity and develop strong community roots. (Jo Arlow Photography)

Cultivating opportunity and healing for fellow veterans

Mark Oravsky was not born a farmer, he hails from Trenton, NJ. And while he has learned a great deal about soil, the art of agriculture and the future of farming, that is not why he wakes up in the morning. He wakes up to help others who may not always be able to help themselves. Specifically, he feels driven to support other vets and first responders who have yet to find their way. And though he is firmly grounded on his current path, his route was circuitous.

I first met Mark in Olympia just before he gave a speech on the Capital grounds about the importance of the suicide prevention work of Forefront and its allies.

Speaking out for vets and suicide prevention at Forefront’s memorial on Olympia Education Day 2016

Immediately, I noticed that Mark is smart, articulate, accomplished and a powerful speaker. After getting to know him a little, I discovered that he is also down-to-earth, tough, driven, thoughtful and considerate. He’s the kind of guy you can call when you need help, and he’ll show up because you asked. His empathy and passion have been enhanced by his own difficult times, which in turn help make him a good listener. He deeply cares about his fellow man.

Rocky transition to civilian life

After a rough childhood, Mark served more than 10 years of active duty and four in the National Guard. He was a platoon sergeant when he left the Army with an honorable discharge in 2011 so he could be present in his children’s lives and pursue other passions. Like that of many veterans, Mark’s transition back to civilian life was rocky. He dropped out of school after one semester and spent nine months in deep depression, imagining how the final moments would feel if he took his life.

He now understands that the armed services train people to be “of service.” They want to give something of themselves and when they can’t do that, they can feel lost. He’s also observed that the armed services train their soldiers for many milestones: 12-mile runs, 100-mile marches, various types of weaponry mastery, completing specific tasks, but not how to re-enter civilian life. Most veterans who are transitioning back to civilian life are missing three elements: a clear purpose, a sense of identity and strong roots in a community, he said.

Often soldiers want to return to their armed service lives because in that environment they feel a part of something that is essential and there’s a strong community. That’s how Mark felt after leaving active duty the first time. However, there is also a pull to get back to a “normal civilian life.”

Seeking work with significance

After working on some big construction projects and generally feeling disconnected and dissatisfied, Mark decided to find work that felt significant. He networked through other vets and someone recommended Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB).

Ethan Oravsky comes along for the ride with his dad, Mark, project director at Victory Farms. (Jo Arlow Photography)

He called, and was amazed that the executive director, Katie Rains, personally answered the phone. She listened to Mark’s story, and without judgment or suggestions said, “It sounds like you’ve had a challenging time. This is what we do… Are you interested?” Shortly after that conversation, Mark found himself at GRuB. Before long he committed to a six-month Mission Fellowship where he worked through the Kitchen Garden Project (KGP), which partners with organizations and low-income people to create backyard and neighborhood food solutions.It took him from lying on the couch “surrounded by urine bottles and old pizza boxes and staring at a pistol to helping build 88 backyard vegetable gardens and learning about multi-cultural change, conflict resolution, active listening and more.” This fellowship later engendered the Victory Farmers program.

While the Mission Fellowship fully engaged Mark and launched him on his current trajectory, it did not address all of his lingering post traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms. In the summer of 2014 Mark discovered the Rites of Passage Vision Quest. Unlike traditional treatments for dealing with PTS such as cognitive therapy and antidepressants, Rites of Passage seeks to heal with specially tailored experiences: solitude, immersion in nature, fasting, and a supportive community.

“The solo time, fast and self-initiated ceremonies allowed me the opportunity to face, process and fully walk through many of the root causes of my current diagnosed PTSD resulting from both childhood and combat related traumas.” After experiencing the quest, Mark slept through the night and felt more comfortable in open spaces.  Moreover, he felt a new, profound connection to himself, others and the world.  Sometimes, he still has thoughts of anxiety, depression, and even suicide, but now he knows he has the tools to deal with those feelings.

Catalyst for healing

Currently, Mark is GRuB’s Victory Farms program coordinator. On the outside, Victory Farms engages veterans in agriculture and service-related projects, but at its core, it acts as a catalyst for the healing process for vets who suffer from PTS, depression and/or anxiety. It’s a natural extension of armed service work — a way to be of service, and feel connected. The farmers not only learn about farming, but they also are trained in conflict resolution, collaborative and multicultural communication and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

At Victory Farms vets come to work “side by side without conflict” to regain their sense of purpose, build a solid sense of identity and develop strong community roots. Mark is cultivating that life for himself and for others.

By Lisa Wahbe

Also see how Forefront supporter and veteran Tom Skerritt uses his passion and storytelling experience to help wounded warriors find their place and themselves through the Red Badge Project.