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VFW Magazine March 2018 : Page 33

woodworking, metalworking and business acumen, among other farming skills. According to LaGrange, one third of the foodstuffs that Americans eat is made possible because of honeybee pol-lination. Unfortunately, beekeepers have experienced a troubling loss of some 30 percent to 40 percent of colonies each year. LaGrange attributes the loss to several factors, including insecticides, herbicides and the Varroa mite, which drains the bees of their “blood equiva-lent” and passes on viruses. “It became most notable about 15 years ago when the mite found its way to the U.S. and spread rapidly,” he said. “More than 50 percent of all hives in this coun-try were lost within a couple of years.” With some 1.5 million transitioning veterans and servicemembers seeking a path after life in the military, the neces-sity for veteran beekeeping programs became clear. “Although it’s a niche, it’s a large endeavor,” LaGrange said of the farm’s apiary program. In 2013, SAVE accepted eight veterans and servicemembers to test the program. Since then, 228 have completed train-ing in basic and commercial beekeeping practices. The farm provides modified equipment to accommodate amputees or others with disabilities. As a longtime VFW member, LaGrange has seen a number of other VFW members pass through and benefit from beekeeping. “They are looking to one day work on, manage and run bee farms,” LaGrange said. “The most beautiful thing I’ve dis-covered working with them and beekeep-ing is that there is so much recovery that occurs. Some veterans come in taking 12 different pills and they’re pretty unrav-eled. By the end of the program, some are completely off pills and sleeping better. That’s really the special thing. We help them heal while they are on the farm.” The research on therapeutic elements of beekeeping and veterans is limited. One of the goals of SAVE Farm is to open up its apiary operation for peer-reviewed, evidence-based research so that pro-fessionals can explore what makes bee-keeping so helpful. But LaGrange knows from personal experience. “I’m occupied, and I’ve found pur-pose,” LaGrange said. “It’s something valuable that has a beginning and an end — I start with the beginning of the season and end up with processed honey. No one is pushing and shoving and asking things of you. You set your own schedule. It’s a peaceful thing to do, working with nature and your hands, creating some-thing valuable.” SOMETHING NEW TO PURSUE The SAVE Farm is not the only place where veterans have found growth and purpose through beekeeping. In conjunction with the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minneapolis, the Bee Squad was founded in honor of Marine Corps veteran and beekeeper Michael Roche. In 2016, the Bee Squad began offering free apiary workshops for veterans inter-ested in learning more about bees and how to keep them. “Through our conversations over the colonies, Michael [Roche] and other Bee Squad members talked about how bee-keeping was a wonderful way to spend time and relax,” said Becky Masterman, the program director and extension edu-cator for the Bee Squad. “We all found such joy in it that he really believed that he would like to bring that joy to veterans.” The Bee Squad keeps its workshops small — only six veterans per class — but they are open to any military veteran and a guest. Workshops operate on a drop-in basis, meaning vets can come to just one class or attend all 10 throughout the season. “Beekeeping is something that people do with someone else,” Masterman said. “We provide support to veterans and give them something new to pursue.” Masterman said she has had a hus-band-and-wife team participate in classes because they already had bees and want-ed to learn how to manage them together. She’s also worked with student veterans who just want to experience an open hive. Masterman said it might feel counter-intuitive to feel peace while opening a box filled with 40,000 bees, but that is what she sees when she works with vet-erans through Bee Squad. “I have one self-described PTSD suf-ferer who saw an advertisement when he was going to a veteran program, and he drove 400 miles each way to come to classes,” Masterman said. “He said that when you are keeping bees, you are focused on something that’s totally dif-ferent than your own problems. You lose time by focusing on the bees. He found that peace in beekeeping that Roche wanted him to find.” Roche died in May 2017, but the Bee Squad veterans program lives on in his honor and continues to adapt to the needs of the veteran participants. J EMAIL Kelly Gibson is an editor at Sunflower Publishing in Lawrence, Kan. Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Ulrick, Lt. Col. Mark Gifford, SAVE founder Gary LaGrange, Staff Sgt. Jeff Efford and Spc. Dakota Henderson take a break after finishing a beekeeping class last April at the Kansas State University Student Farm near Manhattan, Kan. LaGrange, a VFW member and retired Army colonel, offers beekeeping courses for troops with PTSD and TBI. PHOTO COURTESY OF GARY LAGRANGE MARCH 2018   • WWW.VFW.ORG • 33

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