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Rural living and agriculture benefit veterans

Veterans of military service often choose to live in rural areas and to engage in agriculture when they finish their national service to pursue their next stages of life. According the U.S. Department of Defense, a disproportionate share of soldiers originate from locations defined as rural, about 44 percent, even though rural residents as a whole comprise approximately 17 percent of the U.S. population.

The Veterans Administration says about 24 percent of military veterans choose to reside in rural areas after completing their military careers; many opt to become agricultural producers. Perhaps that's why the Farmer Veteran Coalition (www.farmvetco.org) is a fast-growing organization that assists military veterans.

Are there advantages to living in rural locations after soldiers finish their terms of military service? How does their post-service behavioral and physical health compare to veterans living in more metropolitan settings?

These questions are worthy of answers for veterans considering what might follow their military careers and for service providers and others to understand for planning purposes. A study published by Sarah Beehler and three other authors in the most recent edition of the Journal of Rural Mental Health (Vol. 42, Pages 161-173) sheds some light on these matters.

The investigators reviewed survey responses from 4,050 residents living in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, which yielded 124 veterans in their sample. Although this is a relatively small sample of veterans, the survey responses depict what might happen to veterans who chose to live in rural settings after completing their military service.

Veterans living in rural areas had fewer lifetime events involving depression and the best general health of the 124 veterans in the study and in comparison to the veterans living in more metropolitan areas. In contrast, nonveterans in the more metropolitan areas had better health than their nonveteran counterparts in rural areas. There were no statistical differences in the general health of veterans and nonveterans living in similar areas.

Rural veterans noted that the solace they found in rural environments was a healing factor from trauma they may have experienced while in military service. Further studies are needed, however, with larger sample sizes and greater geographical distribution of the participants.

Why do many former soldiers pursue agricultural careers after completing military service? Although the occupation of the respondents was not evaluated in the Beehler study, an unpublished 2015 study of rural veterans indicates that former soldiers who undertook agricultural occupations reported improvements in their physical and mental health, sleep patterns, nutrition, exercise, and decreases in pain, anxiety, depression, medication use and substance use.

This study used objective measures of physical and behavioral health, as well as self-reports. Why is involvement in agriculture beneficial for veterans?

Military service and farming have several features in common. Both endeavors involve taking care of people and providing essentials for human life.

Protecting the residents of their country and other people around the world is essential for human survival. In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow said seeking an optimal life is a basic human motivation, which he called self-actualization. Safety and protection from threats are necessary to achieve self-actualization.

Maslow noted that food, clothing and shelter also are basic human needs to survive on our planet. Without these necessities, we could not live sustainably for multiple generations. Maslow's hierarchy of needs has mostly been confirmed through research.

Military service and agricultural production both involve activities of giving which lead to feeling useful. It's well established that life satisfaction depends more on feeling needed and useful than any other factor, including wealth, power and social status.

Farmers often don't cease their occupations until their health doesn't allow them to carry on beneficial activities that sustain their farming operations. The drive to be useful propels many farmers to exhaust their capacities.

Living in rural areas feels safer, many veterans say, than the noisy hubbub of urban life. Relief from possible threats to their personal well-being and peace can be found when working the land and enjoying other outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing.

Life in rural areas often has fewer signals that trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, such as unexpected loud noises and congregations of people, if this unwanted syndrome occurs as a result of military duty. Privacy also is a privilege that can be more easily found in rural locations.

The degree of self-sacrifice of farmers who exhaust all their capacities is essential in other careers as well, such as healthcare, ministry, teaching, and of course, military service. Many soldiers pay the ultimate price.

It's important that all of us who benefit from the sacrifices of those who protect us and those who feed and clothe us recognize and honor them.

Although Veterans Day occurs on Sunday, Nov. 11 this year, it is celebrated on Monday, November 12. Thank you veterans for your dedication to the well-being of our country and for the sacrifices you have made.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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