Memorial Peace Garden at Wichita VA nurtures bodies, souls

07/05/2014 7:22 AM

08/06/2014 12:12 PM

If there’s a veteran out there who needs to feel supported, there are a lot of people who hope that he or she will visit the new peace garden at the VA.

That’s because a lot of people have come together to donate their time and materials to create an oasis of serenity in the southeast corner of the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center, to give veterans a sort of horticultural hug in the form of trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables.

The garden, which was dedicated last November on Veterans Day, was born of one veteran’s tragic experience, in the hope that other veterans will find some peace there.

Wichitan Laura Nutter got the first stirrings of inspiration for the garden in the midst of grieving for her father, Air Force veteran Donald Kolar, who committed suicide in 2011.

“It was after I got over the shock of everything that … I didn’t want his life defined by the last few moments,” Nutter said of her father, who was 78. “I had kind of seen him as a person with a burden, one he didn’t feel comfortable talking about. He didn’t reach out for help even though it was available. And I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be great to help veterans maybe get some peace or therapy through gardening like he did. He was a great gardener.”

Pain, consolation

Donald Kolar had been in the Air Force for a short time in the 1950s when he was newly married, deployed to Japan and Korea, his daughter said.

“Something happened” during that time, Nutter feels sure, though her father never talked about it.

“He never saw combat, according to my mother, but I always suspected there was some burden. She said he was different when he came back.” In looking at old medical records, Nutter saw that her father went to the doctor for symptoms that she thinks today would be classified as anxiety.

He did find consolation, though, in being outside and in gardening.

“He had a lakefront mobile home,” Nutter said. “He loved growing vegetables and flowers, and he took them around to people. It was a reason to go over and see people.”

After his death, Nutter first thought simply of having a bench installed under a tree at the VA in memory of her father.

“It was important that it be at the VA. He spoke highly of the VA, and they took good care of him,” Nutter said. “His last phone call was to his RN at the VA. … To either help the employees or other veterans, I thought that might be a good way to honor him.”

An outpouring of help

After Nutter was introduced to a behavioral-therapy nurse at the VA who was interested in horticulture therapy, the idea grew to become a full-fledged garden. A couple of big donations spurred Nutter to ask more people to help. More than 38 companies and many people contributed elements or labor to the garden.

“One success led to another success,” Nutter said. “I was amazed at the atmosphere of support, the people who were welcoming the opportunity to help.”

From the Extension Service to local garden centers to big-box stores, the organizations, people and businesses donating time and goods have been far-ranging and comprehensive.

In the shadow of Kellogg and across Edgemoor Street from Fire Station No. 9 and Skaer Veterinary Clinic, the VA designated a space for the garden that is right outside a new behavioral-services building.

“I thought, wow, that was very fitting,” Nutter said, because that department is there “to help better equip (veterans), to help them with their burden.”

Over 19 months, starting in 2012, more than 300 bushes, trees and perennials were planted, a shed was built, concrete was poured, and a plaza was paved with bricks that can be inscribed with the names of veterans living or deceased.

Officially named the Dole VA Memorial Peace Garden, it should “let the veterans know their healing is supported by the community, that there was a great outpouring,” Nutter said.

In the garden’s first full growing season, some veterans already are feeling it, and deeply.

“I can’t express it in words. It brings me to tears many times,” said Randy Hilderbrand, a Persian Gulf War veteran and Native American chaplain at the VA.

Hilderbrand thinks the garden not only honors him as a veteran – it says to him that “somebody’s thinking about me even after we leave the service” – but also comforts him as someone who works at the VA.

“I go out there when I’m upset or something. When I’m upset it’s pretty soothing and pretty therapeutic.”

“I’ve lost people in the service,” Hilderbrand said, and seeing living things in the garden “is kind of awesome, in my opinion. Growing things makes a big impression on me anymore.”

One group of veterans has made stepping stones for the garden.

From flowers to food

Not only have flowers been planted to give beauty, but fruit and vegetables are part of the garden, too – another way to give to veterans, and to look after their health.

“When the snow peas were in full flourish earlier this year, (volunteers) would pick them and leave them, and the next morning they were gone. Somebody’s getting benefit from food in addition to the flowers,” said Bill Cawood, a master gardener and veteran who is a volunteer adviser for the garden.

Hilderbrand donated to the garden some seeds of blue maize that Cherokee Indians have worked to keep pure for 2,000 years – a purity that’s increasingly important as foods are genetically altered, he said.

“A lot of people can’t digest corn. I thought that was a good place for it,” Hilderbrand said of planting the seeds in the peace garden. The blue maize is flourishing better at the VA than in his own yard, he said.

Getting the word out

The garden is also a place for VA staff members and volunteers and veterans’ families to come. Hilderbrand leads support groups and takes them out to the garden sometimes. But while some people are using it, its potential has barely been tapped so far.

“I’m surprised how many people even at the VA don’t realize it’s here, and what it’s capable of,” Hilderbrand said. “I talk to my guys all the time, I tell them to go out there and pull weeds, talk to the lady and plant flowers. I’ve eaten some of the radishes … I even do some of my groups out there sometimes when there’s not too many of us. We sit down on the bench and talk about things out there.”

Efforts are being made to let people know about the garden throughout the VA, Nutter said. And while there is a team of volunteers dedicated to maintain the garden, she said, “we need more people. I would like to have two people a day to make sure it’s being looked at.” For now, Nutter goes over often, especially when something is newly planted, to be sure it’s watered.

The garden is a welcome spot of good news for the VA, lately criticized nationally and locally for making some veterans wait long periods of time to receive care.

“I know we got a lot of bad press,” Hilderbrand said, but “I’m really proud of our VA.” It’s helped him immeasurably, he said.

More work on the garden also needs to be done, to make it completely wheelchair accessible, and maybe to use it as a teaching garden as well, Nutter said.

“We have had veterans that they do spend time here, so it’s been a great project,” she said. “It’s really helped me through the grieving process, turning something so tragic into something that may have meaning for someone else.”

The garden is also open to the public, and people can honor living or deceased veterans and support the garden by buying a brick engraved with the veteran’s name for $50.

Bill Cawood the master gardener is an example of someone who is grateful for the opportunity to help. He was in the Air Force from 1966 to 1970 and then worked for 28 years in the Department of Defense.

“The veterans that have occasion to use the VA over there and partake of their services are near and dear to my heart,” Cawood said. “Anything I can do to ease things any at all, I’m more than happy to do that.

“I can’t say enough about the volunteers who work there. Bless their hearts. They come out there on their own time and do their thing pulling weeds and harvesting. They devote a lot of time to that. Laura spends a lot of time. I can’t say enough.

“I feel like I’m just a witness to a miracle.”

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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