Beating Swords into Plowshares with Desert Forge Foundation

By Darren A. Raspa · Photos by Sergio Salvador

This story begins over seven thousand miles away, across an ocean, a sea, and a continent, at the convergence of three valleys. The soil of the Nijrab, the Tagab, and the Afghanya valleys has been known since before the days of Alexander the Great for its pomegranates and mulberries. The name of the local capital city translates roughly somewhere between acceptance, prayer, and fulfilled wish, but is known to westerners more by the Pashto name emblazoned across thousands of headlines and seared into millions of stricken hearts and minds: Kabul, Afghanistan.

The pomegranates and mulberries of Kapisa Province were far from American Provincial Reconstruction Team engineer Victor Versace’s mind in 2010. Attached to the French army on a mission to connect Kabul to the hinterlands through electrification and water projects, Versace and his team took cover and returned fire as enemy rounds ricocheted nearby. As a combat veteran of the US Army’s 1st Armored Division Engineer Brigade in Iraq who had patrolled Baghdad for roadside bombs seven years earlier, he knew the rounds were too close. To his horror, Versace’s friends began to fall. “I thought I was done,” he remembers. He survived that day and returned to the States, but was mentally, physically, and emotionally shattered, his psyche carved out and desiccated, like so many others, by the uncaring blades of combat trauma.

Cicadas are buzzing and, eerily, drums are playing when I meet Versace in a far different valley just south of Albuquerque. Despite the lateness of the day, the sun burns as it angles through the leaves of cottonwoods and clouds of mosquitoes on this midsummer’s evening on Virgin Farms, one of the rejuvenation project sites spawned from that bleak day in Afghanistan seven years earlier. Versace is a big man, not necessarily for his physical size, but for the energetic space he occupies.

The rows of green chile that march into the distance before us are part of the Desert Forge Foundation’s Warrior Farmer Project, Versace’s project to restore emotional, mental, and physical health to veterans. The atmosphere is festive. The enemy in this field, bindweed, does not shoot back, but rather chokes, twisting around the roots of the peppers. Combat veterans and active-duty soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen bend beside non-veteran community members who show up for the training and stay for the sense of brotherhood, sisterhood, and healing.

Tonight, Desert Forge is on debut for the community, and Versace’s pride shows. “I came out here looking for adventure,” Versace says as he squints into the setting sun and embraces old friends—“brothers and sisters” as he calls his fellow vets. Originally from Poughkeepsie, in the Hudson River Valley of New York, Versace worked his way through an environmental engineering degree at New Mexico Tech as a ranch hand. “I cut hay, bucked hay, piled hay. For five years.”

In 2002, he was working as an engineer for the Indian Health Service in Arizona when he received the call: It was a warning order for Iraq. Versace was a soldier with the Utah Army National Guard in a combat engineer unit out of Utah’s Four Corners, “where Navajo, and Mormons, and hillbillies, and rednecks all mix,” he remarks. “So we got a call and next thing we know, in April or May of 2003 we were in Iraq. And we were there fourteen months with the 1st Armored Division.” Versace pauses. “At month eight, we were broken.” Versace opens up as we walk the rows of Jemez, Sandia, AZ 88s, NM Heritage 6-4s, and New Mexico Big Jims. “A lot of us came home pretty messed up. I came home and I wasn’t doing good. I started going to behavioral health therapy, going to the VA. I drank, I lost my job, got divorced. You name the manifestation of PTSD and I had it.” His face brightens. “But I was still in the infantry and I was a leader and I recognized I had to get my life together. So in 2010, when I thought I was sufficiently healed, I went back. I went to Afghanistan as an advisor on a provincial reconstruction team.” Versace struggled with the mission. His family and friends back home were struggling from the recession. His brothers and sisters were being killed and injured. Then came the spring 2010 firefight in the Tagab Valley, where several comrades were wounded, and he knew he was done with war.

Versace is a self-described book nerd and grunt. “If I was out in the bush, my friends knew if they didn’t see me, I’m in my tent, smoking my pipe, reading a book.” Back home he continued his studies. “I had been reading about food localization, and hearing the news as my friends committed suicide and died of strange, sudden diseases, and I’m thinking, ‘What we can do for New Mexico and help my brothers along the way?’” Versace dove into Michael Shuman’s Dreaming New Mexico Project report, “Prospects for Food Localization in New Mexico,” which revealed the startling statistic that ninety-eight percent of food consumed in the state is imported, with $4 billion of $6 billion total in local food dollars leaving the state annually.

Stateside, wracked by chronic back pain and night terrors from his deployment experiences, Versace came up with an idea: Perhaps the best way to heal was the old-fashioned way, through sweat and shared experience. With land he’d purchased, he began recruiting his Army buddies to help out. Without the direction of the unit assignment and tasking, many combat veterans flounder in society. Perhaps returning soldiers needed a new mission.

“I’m an engineer, so I did the math,” Versace explains. “If we capture just twenty-five percent of the agricultural money leaving the state, $1 billion, that’s 10,000 new jobs at $37,500 per job, to include benefits. So I said, let’s start farming.” In 2011, Desert Forge was the solution, formed out of the furnace of the US War on Terror. “So I’m kind of an accidental farmer!”

Since 2011, the small patch of land Versace and his friends initially worked has grown to include four farming sites: the Fresh Possibilities Project in Peña Blanca, the Steve Garcia Farm in the Atrisco area, the Rio Valley Greenhouses, and the Virgin Farms Project, the site I was touring with the Desert Forge team. While there, I had the chance to catch up with Rick Gwilt, Desert Forge’s director of operations, as he was cooking yak burgers for the assembled workers from the domesticated bovids on the farm across the street. “Chief Gwilt,” as the guys call him, is a tough, clear-eyed chief warrant officer with more than three and a half decades in the military—and also happens to be one of Versace’s former bosses in the Army. He imparts the feeling that they should be doing push-ups, sit-ups, or running drills.

Steve Moore, owner of Virgin Farms, provides the host farm and mentorship for Desert Forge.

“I was the battalion maintenance officer for the unit we were in,” Chief Gwilt explains. “Versace was working in recon.” Gwilt has seen combat, and speaks of the unshakable brotherhood and sisterhood formed among men and women asked to do self-sacrificing, often terrible, tasks. “That tribe aspect, the connections, doesn’t go away.” Gwilt pauses to flip the yak burgers on the flaming barbecue. “A lot of the problems guys have are [because] they no longer have that brotherhood. But it’s alive and well out here. We just don’t wear our uniforms anymore.”

The land—and the yaks—are owned by entrepreneur, environmental scientist, and farmer Steve Moore, who realized that to grow good plants you need good soil. Moore toiled to create an organic, sustainable nutrient mix so pure it could be ladled and sipped. The efficacy of that mix is self-evident in the healthy peppers growing all around us. As Desert Forge moves forward, Moore, Gwilt, Versace, and their team hope to diversify to crops other than chile, their current primary staple. As a nonprofit organization, growth has been hard. Desert Forge sells for donations at growers markets around town, to include the Downtown Growers’ Market as well as the Rail Yards Market, both in Albuquerque. Desert Forge relies almost entirely on volunteer support and grants, with only four regularly paid staff members.

One of those staff members is Richard Baca, a tall, bearded veteran with more than two and a half decades in the military who grew up in the South Valley raising, harvesting, and preserving fruit with his family. “After the chaos of the military, being away from your family, this is life. For veterans, this is a transformation.” Baca respects Versace for what he’s done and admires the mission of Desert Forge to make a difference. “These guys, they go from a position of taking life to giving life through the land. Therapeutic-wise, there is nothing like toiling in the land and then getting up and seeing what came from your hands.” Baca stops mid-thought to shout at a man with a chest-length beard striding down a row of chiles. “Nate, come here, man!”

Nate Lind is the owner and facilitator of Legendary Man, the nation’s largest all-natural beard care company, and is based out of Rio Rancho. A year and a half ago, Lind and his company were seeking a nonprofit that aligned with their vision and mission of empowering men and found that alignment in Versace’s group. Lind, who grew up farming in Kansas, explains that building brotherhood and providing an activity for people to work together are aspects which attracted him to Desert Forge. “Legendary Man’s mission is creating brotherhood and creating a community of guys who feel accepted, respected, admired, and inspired. Victor is doing that, too, so it was a natural bond.”

As the sun dips below the horizon, the volunteers, who include members of CNM biology professor Dr. Paul Polechla’s anatomy and physiology class and other non-military workers, gather beneath the cottonwoods around long wooden tables filled with food grown mere feet away—the epitome of local.

It seems the entire community is here tonight for Versace and Desert Forge. Potential buyer Cris DiGregory, of Albuquerque’s Standard Diner and Range Café; Albuquerque mayoral candidate Tim Keller; and members of the congressional Rural Coalition and the National Black Farmers Association sit side-by-side with combat veterans, eating, talking, laughing, all equally part of the brotherhood and sisterhood formed in the fields.

I ask Versace the story behind the name Desert Forge. He hails Josh Stevens, a friend and former marine who heard about the project from an Army Ranger five years ago in Georgia at technical shooting school. “In Iraq, it’s so hot the temperature doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Stevens laughs. “The thermometer could say it’s 130 or even 150 degrees, but when you’re over there, you measure it by what’s happening to you. How many gallons of water can you drink and still be thirsty? How much diarrhea do you have from a lack of electrolytes? How many second degree burns do you have from opening door handles? The ground is sticky because your boots are melting. It’s beyond hot. It’s like a forge.”

Over the course of my time at Virgin Farms, Versace has become a friend, a quality that made him a good NCO (non-commissioned officer) in the field and makes him the ideal tip of the spear for Desert Forge. In five years, he sees the foundation branching into an Albuquerque-based national training center for veterans to empower themselves by learning farming and connecting with jobs in local food. He has a lot of plans and a lot of hope, and it’s infectious.

“Our mission is returning warriors and rebuilding community,” Versace says, as Baca prepares to bless the delicious meal before us. “We talk about revitalizing local food, agriculture, and our economy. How about people, too?” Baca begins. Hats come off. Heads bow low.

“We have so many people fighting over there still,” Baca intones. “Bring everyone home safe.”

Another prayer cast across an ocean, a sea, and a continent, the cicadas the only sound as the day’s last light fades.

The Desert Forge Foundation is open to all people, veterans and non-veterans alike. Get in touch and come help out on one of their sites, and be on the lookout for their roasted chiles this fall.

In addition to the Desert Forge Foundation, the Santa Fe–based Bee Corps has developed a new project, Honey For Our Wounds©, which aims to help female veterans through the art of beekeeping. A benefit concert for the Bee Corps, featuring Michael Kott (cello) and Carol Williamson (piano and vocals), will be on November 12, 2 to 4 pm, at the Santa Fe Woman’s Club theatre.

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