This Air Force Veteran Helps Traumatized Soldiers Flourish Through Farming

After ten years of service, LeeAnn Murphy sees volunteer work with Veterans to Farmers as her “second service.”

LeeAnn Murphy’s contribution to the U.S. military didn’t end when she separated as a Staff Sergeant (E-5) in 2008 and was honorably discharged. While some could say that she only officially served during the decade she spent in the Air Force, Murphy says that she considers what she’s doing now to be her lifelong “second service” — helping veterans suffering from the emotional and physical traumas of war.

Originally a Tennessee farm girl, the Fort Collins, Colorado-based Murphy is going back to her roots through her work with Veterans to Farmers. Although the organization’s purpose is to train veterans in agricultural capabilities, Murphy and her husband Rich, who also volunteers with the group, often go above and beyond the general curriculum by helping the veterans find housing and support.

Richard and LeeAnn Murphy in Napa Valley
Richard and LeeAnn Murphy in Napa Valley

Unlike many of her fellow airmen, including her husband, Murphy wasn’t deployed overseas for combat during her decade of service — which was extremely rare for someone in Security Forces (ground defense and military police for the Air Force) around 9/11. Rather than coming away with wounds, Murphy left the Air Force with positive effects: She met her husband shortly after enlisting and the Murphys’ two children, Collin (15) and India (12), were born on military bases. Murphy received an education she never would have been able to afford on her own. But she also left the military with a desire to help others.

In a way, Murphy sees this perhaps non-traditional form of second service as a way of giving back to those who weren’t as lucky as she was during her service. And yes, she does call it luck: “I was very, very lucky.”

Bound For Service

In the fifth grade, when Murphy was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, “I would say, ‘I’m going to be in the Air Force.’ I guess I had known for quite a while that that was what I wanted to do.”

Enticed by the prospect of financial aid, Murphy decided to enlist in the Air Force as soon as she could. Murphy and her mother entered the recruitment office in Cookeville, Tennessee to sign up just three months out of high school.

Murphy receives her Associates Degree from the Community College of the Air Force (2002). The first in a list of degrees.
Murphy receives her Associates Degree from the Community College of the Air Force (2002). The first in a list of degrees.

“When I got to my first duty station I was still 17, so I was absolutely the youngest person there,” says Murphy, recalling her arrival at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. “I was the only female on my flight. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out, but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I grew up in a world that required growing into adulthood and self-confidence.”

Although her fellow airmen (all older, male, and higher-ranking) had been warned to stay away from her by an overprotective superior, they soon became her (also overprotective) brothers ― with one exception: Rich Murphy was in the same squadron.

Nine months after the couple started dating, Rich received orders to deploy to Germany, and the couple decided to get married. The deployment orders were eventually cancelled, but they have been together ever since.

Rich later deployed to Saudi Arabia, where he was stationed during 9/11 but, despite receiving orders to deploy three times, Murphy never did.

Graduation from Basic Training in San Antonio, Texas (1998).
Graduation from Basic Training in San Antonio, Texas (1998).

Embarking On ‘Second Service’

In the first few years after separating from the Air Force, Murphy felt that there was something missing in her day-to-day life, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Rich cultivated a strong interest in gardening ― an activity he found to be therapeutic ― and wanted to impart the benefits of agriculture to other vets. Having grown up on a farm, it was certainly an interest that Murphy appreciated, as well. While researching agricultural opportunities, Murphy stumbled across a fledgling organization, Veterans to Farmers, which seemed to encompass the Murphys greatest interests.

“[Veterans to Farmers] was something that we felt very strongly about, my husband and I both...and it was something that we felt long-term would be good for us and other people,” Murphy says.

The couple began by raising money for the organization and, in January 2014, Murphy became chair of the board. With a training certificate from Colorado State University (CSU), Rich became the program’s instructor and has since taught over 200 veterans. He is now the organization’s volunteer executive director.

Murphy working with Veterans to Farmers.
Murphy working with Veterans to Farmers.

Veterans to Farmers has since established an official partnership with CSU, which provides three certification curricula for veteran farmers, while another partnership with the Denver Botanical Garden offers Veterans to Farmers six acres where they can hone their gardening skills.

Not only do the participants come away from the program with agricultural competencies that they can use to sustain a farming business, but the therapeutic aspect of farming ― the same benefits that Rich wanted to share with the veteran community ― has brought about tangible results.

Murphy described the positive benefits of the program from the perspective of one participant, who told her, “‘I was on 15 meds when I started this program. Now, I don’t take any.’”

While her involvement with the organization derives from Murphy’s commitment to the idea of second service, Veterans to Farmers has offered Murphy a reciprocal relationship. Murphy realized that the element missing from her life was her connection to the military community ― and Veterans to Farmers fills that void. “There was a period of time there when I wasn’t involved in the veteran community,” she says. “And the difference in how it feels to be and to not be, it’s like being with a group of family.”

Work day at Veterans to Farmers.
Work day at Veterans to Farmers.

Although Murphy is no longer board chair for Veterans to Farmers, she declares that the program “is 100% a part of our lives.” The couple is currently building a greenhouse on three acres of their own land to expand the training initiatives to include controlled environmental agriculture. Her commitment to the program - she currently serves as Secretary - and the community continues.

“We’ve had veterans who lived in their cars when they came to Colorado to do the program and found housing for them,” she says. “We helped one gentleman get his other-than-honorable discharge turned around so he could get veterans’ benefits, which was huge. It’s just whatever is making their situation more difficult, we want to try to ease that for them.”

And Murphy knows that, if given the opportunity, the veterans that she helps would do the same for her, because that’s what they signed up for when they enlisted.

“It’s a connection that you can’t walk away from,” she says. “You go into the military to serve, and when we get out that desire doesn’t go away.”

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