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From Guns To Green Thumbs: Gardening Provides Therapy For Florida Vets

Marine veteran Lane Harris smells a rose at Angel Gardens, a nonprofit that provides gardening therapy to North Central Florida veterans. “We were trained for death," Harris said. "And now we’re cultivating life.” (Grace Kenny/WUFT News)
Marine veteran Lane Harris smells a rose at Angel Gardens, a nonprofit that provides gardening therapy to North Central Florida veterans. “We were trained for death," Harris said. "And now we’re cultivating life.” (Grace Kenny/WUFT News)

Lane Harris never had a doubt about joining the military.

In 2005, he signed up for the Marines, and he was eventually sent to Iraq for eight months and Afghanistan for seven as part of a machine gun section.

When Harris returned to the U.S. in 2009, he said he did not have problems adapting to civilian life.

But while visiting Angel Gardens rose nursery in Alachua, he was struck with an emotional response he had never felt before.

“I was just in a parking lot thinking about the day, and for the first time ever, I just started crying uncontrollably,” the now 30-year-old said. “I wasn’t thinking of people who’d died or none of that stuff. I was just like, ‘Man, the roses. That was awesome today.’ ”

Harris ended up joining the nursery’s nonprofit organization, Rose Angel Gardens, shortly after his first visit. The nonprofit was started three years ago by Pamela Greenewald, who runs the commercial Angel Gardens, to provide horticulture therapy to veterans.

Greenewald, 64, said she originally formed the organization to help multiple groups of people, but "it turned out that the veterans were the best fit."

In 2015, the program received a mini-grant of $800 from the Wounded Warrior Project. Greenewald herself has no veterans in her family, but she said she enjoys working with them because they are responsible, loyal and caring.

“I find that working with veterans is really my favorite group of people,” she said.

Greenewald teaches veterans how to grow roses from their homes using stem cuttings.

“The person is nurturing something, and then in return, the plant is giving back this thing,” Greenewald said. “You feel like you really accomplished something.”

Once their flowers have grown, Greenewald buys the plants back from veterans for $5, then sells them through Angel Gardens for $8. The money made goes back into the nonprofit, which uses it for supplies and more cuttings.

Nine veterans are involved in the group. One of them, Lorenzo Monduy Jr., said gardening gave his life purpose.

Monduy joined the Army in 2004 and was deployed in Iraq as a combat medic from June 2006 to September 2007.

“Being there for 15 months in 130-degree weather wearing 80 pounds of gear, sometimes I wished a bomb did blow up because I was so miserable,” he said.

One day, an improvised explosive device blew up and hit Monduy's truck.

"Everything went black for a few minutes," he said. "When I finally came to, everyone was OK, but half the hood was blown off and [the] front tire was gone."

When Monduy returned to the U.S. in 2008, it became clear that the war had changed him.

“The first month or two, I was on top of the world,” he said. “Then I started feeling like everything was dull. Things just weren’t the same as before.”

Monduy said he began to experience anxiety and depression. The government-sponsored services offered to him felt harmful, so he was encouraged to join group therapy with other veterans to help his PTSD.

“It kind of hurt more to hear everybody else’s stories and to relive my story,” he said. “If anything, I felt like it made me more anxious and more on edge. I was in that group, and I’d be shaking.”

Monduy had no plans for the future, so on a whim, he joined a nonprofit organization in Miami that works with plants. He quickly noticed the work soothed his anxiety and depression.

“Giving back to the earth and its natural cycles started to make me see things from a different perspective,” he said.

Monduy now owns a farm in Ocala and surrounds himself with nature.

“If I didn’t have the gardening and this new mission, I don’t know what I’d do," he said. "It wouldn’t be good.”

He discovered Rose Angel Gardens on Facebook and became involved with the group in 2016.

“It’s like I’m investing in life now,” he said. “With the roses, the soil, the food, that’s life.”

Monduy said he still struggles with war memories and "dark places," but gardening helps him.

“Doing this gardening stuff, it definitely helps me not dwell so much on those things,” he said. “It’s a long healing process, but it’s definitely helping.”

Harris, the Marine, now lives on a farm, too, in Trenton, with his wife and two sons. He said there is a stark contrast between the battlefield and the garden.

“We were trained for death,” Harris said. “And now we’re cultivating life.”

Grace is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 772-708-5532 or emailing graceokenny@gmail.com.