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Vets could transition from battlefield to farm field

VIRGINIA BEACH --- Dozens of people volunteer each week at New Earth Farm in Pungo. But farmer John Wilson noticed something special when Coleman Ruiz showed up.

"That guy could work," Wilson said. "He's the kind of guy who, when he's confronted with a problem, he figures out a solution. That guy is relentless."

Ruiz didn't master those skills tilling dirt - he honed them in combat.

Ruiz is a former Navy SEAL who served 13 years in the military, including a stint at Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the elite counterterrorism unit known commonly as SEAL Team 6. He deployed six times to Iraq and Afghanistan, leading dozens of combat operations before leaving the service as a commander in 2011.

Now, thanks in part to Wilson's tutelage, he's a part-time farmer in Maryland.

Ruiz and Wilson's story is featured in a documentary about veterans becoming farmers. "Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farmfields" will be screened tonight at Tidewater Community College and again Saturday at Beach Movie Bistro.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the nation needs at least 100,000 new farmers over the next 10 years to replace those aging out of the business. Some groups say that number might be closer to a million.

The filmmakers, along with Wilson and Ruiz, believe veterans could help fill the gap. The skills needed in battle, they say, translate well to farm life.

Plus, said Wilson, who's not a veteran, "farming can be a healing experience - an antidote to that stress of war."

Ruiz agrees. Working on a farm - fresh air, outdoors, close contact with animals and the earth - is an ideal setting for young men and women who struggle after returning from combat.

"It's healthy for guys coming out of that environment," said Ruiz, who along with his wife volunteered on Wilson's farm for several years while stationed in Virginia Beach. After he left the Navy, they bought 6-1/2 acres of land and started a small farm near Annapolis. "It's therapeutic for guys to get out in that environment, to work hard and blow off some steam doing something to helps the community."

Wilson has taught a few other service members in recent years and hopes eventually to establish a special training program for veterans. He sees sustainable agriculture as a national security priority: "Farming is another way for them to continue to serve."

Tonight's screening will begin at 6 p.m. at the TCC Advanced Technology Center. The film, which runs about 40 minutes, will be shown again Saturday at 7 p.m. at Beach Movie Bistro on Laskin Road.

The filmmakers and Wilson will answer questions after each screening.

Join the conversation and share your voice.

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