ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — When Robert Timmons of St. Augustine came home from serving in Afghanistan, his wife noticed a change in her husband.
“I really knew right away, the day that he came home, that he was not the same,” Crystal Timmons said.
That was in 2008. Robert Timmons had joined the U.S. Army just two days after he and Crystal Timmons were married back in 2005. Robert Timmon’s deployment to Afghanistan lasted a year. He wishes he could forget much of what he experienced.
“I have a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, and my left leg has got all kinds of pins in it,” Robert Timmons said, explaining that in one incident he was hit by mortar fire. In another, he was blasted by an improvised incendiary device.
But without getting into detail, he leaves no uncertainty that he witnessed much greater horrors visited upon others.
“The stuff that I saw there and went through there, I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said.
His own recalling of his homecoming seems to echo that of his wife.
“When I got out I had a really hard time transitioning out of the military – self-medication, depression, suicidal,” he said.
Crystal Timmons, a lifelong practitioner and longtime instructor of yoga, wanted to save her husband and her marriage. She wasn’t sure what to do.
“It definitely was a process over a couple of years,” she said, noting that some of her husband’s treatment was not something a doctor would prescribe.
“[We were] looking for holistic modalities for my husband and our family,” she said. “There was a lot of medication involved, self-medicating as well as alcohol and things like that, when he got out of the military.”
Eventually, an idea planted itself in her mind.
“I enrolled in the First Coast Technical College and I asked my husband to come with me,” Crystal Timmons explained.
Given that she was his caregiver and he was better off being close to her during her classwork, it made sense that he might at least tag along.
“This idea kept coming into my head,” she said of what would eventually become the Veteran Garden Project, a non-profit that builds and plants gardens for former and even current servicemen and servicewomen, particularly those suffering PTSD and other trauma from their service. Our conversation occurred at the home of Gordon Misner, a U.S. Army veteran and the father of soldier Gordon Misner II, who was killed in 2006 while serving in Iraq.
“He was in Baghdad and his vehicle hit an IED,” said Misner, who heard about Veteran Garden Project and applied to receive a garden bed at his home.
“Always with us,” Misner said while placing a round commemorative stone marker in front of his new garden frame, to the gathering of volunteers putting finishing touches on the plot. It was VGP’s final installation of 2019, happening as tropical storm Nestor pelted the First Coast.
“A little bit of rain isn’t going to scare us!” Crystal Timmons vowed.
Certainly not after all they’d been through, including VGP’s early germination days.
“I’ve always loved nature and being outside,” she smiled. “I really didn’t know how to garden.”
Back then, Robert Timmons needed convincing as well.
“You know, I didn’t want to go sit in a classroom and learn,” Robert Timmons recalled, “but once I did, come to find out that I love it too – love being outside. It’s just therapy, you know?”
That therapeutic effect turned a significant corner for Crystal and Robert Timmons – and now for recipients of VGP gardens.
“Just being present, connecting with your breath, being centered, and having a single focus,” Crystal Timmons said, outlining some of the inherent benefits, “which is what the garden bed does as well.”
Misner echoed the sentiment, eagerly anticipating the work-reward cycle that a garden provides.
“This is very meditative,” Misner enthused. “I can get out here and I can get my hands in the dirt. I can weed and just clear my mind.”
In addition to its mission of helping veterans, VGP’s values include using local, organic, and eco-friendly materials, also allowing recipients to choose the plants and produce they most want.
“We … eat a lot of tomatoes and sweet peppers already,” Misner said, pointing around his nutritious and colorful bounty. “We wanted some natural herbs, so we got this horsemint over here, which is a native Florida thyme,” he said of one example.
The organization also emphasizes the mantra of ‘paying it forward’.
“What we do ask is, when we go to build the garden at the veteran’s home, that they help us build the next one,” Robert Timmons said.
Misner seemed just as excited about fulfilling that promise as about growing his own produce.
“Trying to get more involved in the project and next year’s builds,” Misner said looking ahead, “and learning more about the wonderful mission that they have.”
A mission accomplished and simultaneously a work in progress for Crystal and Robert Timmons, but this soggy Saturday it was clear that they are enjoying the moments, one at a time.
“By doing this, getting out with veterans, getting outside, not sitting in the house secluding myself from everybody, has really helped,” Robert Timmons assured.
“I have seen a difference in him,” Crystal Timmons observed. “He looks healthier, he sleeps better at night, he is trying so hard to watch his anger and his triggers and things like that.”
With a mission so focused on looking ahead, not back, it’s only natural that VGP – which planted six gardens in 2019 and hopes to at least double that number in 2020 – VGP has a five-year plan envisioning an office, a nursery, and a community garden space.
To apply to receive a garden and/or to donate to Veteran Garden Project, click here.