Returning veteran helps other vets find purpose and place in farming

Gloria Hafemeister
Shawn Monien shares a photo from 2007 of the guidon and his crew standing in front of his tank dubbed “Auftragstaktik”.

RANDOLPH – When retired veteran Shawn Monien returned to civilian life, he knew he would not return to an office setting. He also knew farmers and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau could help him and his fellow veterans more than anyone.

With that in mind, he established his family on a small farm, joined the Farm Bureau and set out to help other vets.

He points out that during World War II the Farm Bureau was very instrumental in helping veterans return from combat to work on the farm.

“When a soldier returns from combat and gets out of the military there is a great need for them to still feel a sense of purpose. If they can’t return to a meaningful job it is difficult for them to make the adjustment,” he said.

He says the problem is even greater now for several reasons.

“When the soldiers came back home after World War II the war was actually over. Veterans return now and they turn on TV and see the mission where they served is still not complete. They cannot find that sense of accomplishment,” he said.

Farming can provide something where they can actually see the fruits of their labor.

“Army of One” was the shortest-lived recruiting slogan in the U.S. military history. It was meant to stress the strength of the individual. The Army dropped the slogan relatively quickly because they realized it was contrary to the reality that, in the Army, you are completely reliant upon your team. In a stressful situation, the individual can be overwhelmed. He or she needs others.

Monien says that’s why he believes that the concept of finding a mentor to work with vets who want to establish themselves in some sort of agricultural career would be so helpful.

Shawn Monien

His vision for helping vets return to the farm is to work with that team concept. Once a vet locates a farmette where he can settle in someone on the team helps figure out how to make the best use of the buildings. Another helps figure out how it can be done profitably.

He sees the concept of developing a farmette as a way to get the vet’s family involved, too.

When he retired he and his wife and two sons moved to their small farm near Randolph, Wis.. Using the team concept, he and his family set out to determine what they would do on their farm. His wife and two sons, Carraigh, 16, Lochlann, 14, are part of the team, figuring out how they can generate income with alpacas and vegetables.

“Like farm kids, when military kids take on responsibility they feel like they are an important part of the family team. They develop a work ethic like farm kids have been known for,” he points out.

He also found a mentor from the Watertown area to help him become established in the alpaca business.

“Like in the military, once we determine what we want to do we need training. Georgia Meyer is helping me learn about the alpaca business and to set up my farm to raise them,” he said.

Knowing how much this farmette has helped him adjust to civilian life, he has now set out to develop a template to help veterans figure out what they are interested in and capable of doing and return to civilian life.

“The farming community can be a huge part of helping vets get back into society and give them a continued sense of purpose,” he says.  “We need to get these vets to continue to use their hands and their minds.”

He isn’t looking to get a vet started in large-scale farming or something where he can get rich. In most cases they don’t need to rely on their farm as their sole source of income but just something to supplement their income, pay the expenses of owning a farmette and give them a sense of purpose. 

He sees the Farm Bureau as a way to help deal with the bureaucracy of the USDA and help them find sources of financial help for establishing a small business on the farm.  He sees farmers in the community as the source of encouragement and advice.

Shawn Monien responds responding to a suicide bombing of a strategic bridge north of Mosul in Iraq in 2008.

Monien grew up in Verona at a time when it was all farming in the area. After graduating from Verona High School he went to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for a pre-medical program and he served in the ROTC at the same time. After suddenly losing his brother, he changed his career goals and enlisted in the Army.

In 1999, he was commissioned as an officer and served in Germany; but then the events of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred and everything changed. He spent the remainder of his military career in combat settings.

It is his personal experience that has helped him understand how hard it is for veterans to come back home and pick up where they left off.

He says, “While I was in Iraq all I dreamed about was getting my own farm when I came back; a place where I can see the fruits of my labors. It’s hard to find that in many civilian jobs.”

Even while he was still in the military, in the back of his mind he was working on a concept of bringing vets back to the farm.

“Like soldiers, farmers deal with emergencies and issues all the time. Farmers have untimely snowfalls, droughts, floods and tornadoes to deal with,” he says. “Vets are accustomed to dealing with nature while still accomplishing their goals. Like farmers who prefer working outdoors in nature, vets are also accustomed to being outdoors. It’s hard for them to return to an indoor job or an office setting. That’s why hunting or fishing is so good for them. It gets their adrenaline going.”

There are helpful programs available to help veterans transition into agriculture when they return. Monien encourages them to check out the USDA website for information on sources of help. There is also help from the non-profit organization Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Those organizations provide funding and some training but Monien is particularly interested in working with those veterans who don’t necessarily have a farming background but who would not do well returning to an urban setting.

“They need some training and guidance. I believe that’s where farmers can come in.  We can build a network and match farmers with vets to serve as mentors – a sort of internship program,” he says.

He sees one more important thing that farmers and veterans share – depression.

It’s often hard for veterans and farmers to go to counseling. He believes they can be helpful to one another, though. When a farmer helps a veteran it gives him a sense of accomplishment. When a veteran works with a farmer he gives the farmer a renewed sense of accomplishment even when his crop may have failed or he hasn’t been able to make ends meet this year.

To contact Monien to learn more about Military Veteran Farmette Development, call 608-977-1549.