The lived experience of being injured on deployment, telling no one, almost losing everything, and fighting his way back to a purposeful existence was the start of Hero Agriculture.
I know what it’s like to lose hope. And what it takes to find it again.
I deployed to Iraq in 2009 to run the Emergency Response Center at Joint Base Balad. I’d joined the Army 15 years earlier to serve as a field combat and flight medic, but I had known by age 4 that I would be a medic someday.
We’d been in Balad four months when an ambush forced our Humvee ambulance off the road, and we flopped around inside like rag dolls. By the next morning, a pool of blood had leaked from my ear onto my pillow, but I kept quiet. I just needed to keep doing my job.
My performance deteriorated dramatically, and less than three months later, the Army sent me back to the U.S. My first few days on base, I just wandered the streets. It was January, and I remember being cold and sleeping in hallways or stairwells on nights when I couldn’t find my way back to my room.
I remember being cold and sleeping in hallways or stairwells on nights when I couldn’t find my way back to my room.
I eventually met a social worker who helped me transfer to the Wounded Warrior Battalion. I shuffled from one rehab program to the next until the Army medically retired me at age 37, not quite two years after I’d returned from Iraq.
I was devastated but went home and tried volunteering at a fire department 45 minutes from our house. Never mind the severe headaches, memory loss, stuttering, distorted vision, and balance problems. I still dreamed of taking care of patients again.
In less than six months, I was back in the hospital with a brain infection, and though I couldn’t walk when they discharged me, there was an upside. I’d finally met a doctor who didn’t dismiss my seeing the walls bend and floors slope as hallucinations.
I'd finally met a doctor who didn't dismiss my seeing the walls bend and floors slope as hallucinations.
My wife, several fire chiefs, friends, and even the hospital CEO worked tirelessly to get me into an Atlanta inpatient program for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, the donor-funded SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center. I spent the first two weeks at SHARE just being mad that I was there, but they cared enough to win me over.
Seven life-changing months later, I went home a new man. I volunteered at a fire department closer to home and went back to paramedic school to relearn what I once knew. I finished at the top of my class and passed the state certification exam. Then, I discovered no one would hire me as a medic. Too much risk, they said.
Then, I discovered no one would hire me as a medic.
It was a crushing blow just as I’d thought I was getting on track. I got up each morning, if I’d bothered to try sleeping, dreading another day with no purpose. My goal became just making it to the next day, sober, not in a prescription drug fog, and alive.
That’s when I stumbled into farming. Just to stay busy, I volunteered on the farm of a long-time cattleman named Eddie Brannon, who was then pastor of my church and runs a funeral home. I discovered that a day on the tractor is good therapy, and I started using my medic skills to help the animals. I soon spent most of my days there.
Eddie was a patient and loving teacher who taught me to hold steady again. Just a few months after he’d helped me pull my first calf, I called him for help with a cow struggling to give birth. He was about to preach a funeral and couldn’t come. I’d do just fine, he assured me. Several hours later, he came home to a healthy cow and calf and a very proud new farmer.
Several hours later, he came home to a healthy cow and calf and a very proud new farmer.
In the fall of 2016, my wife and I bought an overgrown 82-acre farm in Calhoun, GA. My dad and I, with help from many others, started renovating the old farmhouse, building barns, and putting up fence. I’d finally let go of the dream of being a medic that had fueled me for almost four decades and was grateful every day for a new start.
When I met struggling veterans, I would invite them to the farm. Pretty soon, they just started showing up. Sometimes they drove over 100 miles, worked a few hours, and drove back home. This was the beginning of Hero Agriculture.
Sometimes they drove over 100 miles, worked a few hours, and drove back home.
I share my story not because you need to know what happened to me, but because I want you to see what can be done.
Thousands of veterans kill themselves every year because they’ve lost hope. It doesn’t have to be this way.
—Mike Reynolds, Hero Agriculture Founder,
Chief Farming Officer, MSG (Ret.)