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In Caldwell, veterans find solace in a garden of surprises

June Pugmire talks about the Idaho Veterans Garden

June Pugmire is among the members of the Treasure Valley community who tend raised beds at the Idaho Community Garden in Caldwell.
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June Pugmire is among the members of the Treasure Valley community who tend raised beds at the Idaho Community Garden in Caldwell.

The Idaho Veterans Garden in Caldwell is an open, wind-swept place. It sits in a modest part of town, tucked next to a grassy slope leading to the freeway. A chain-link fence surrounds the garden’s collection of raised beds and profusion of American flags, snapping in a brisk breeze.

Everywhere you look, there’s something to see: the row of eccentric bird houses, handmade by U.S. Army veteran Mike Bull. The fastidious woodpile that supplies a burn pit where veterans congregate, even when temperatures fall to the mid-teens. The row of red, white and blue padlocks (“American-made,” Bull noted) that hang on the fence, engraved with donors’ and veterans’ names.

A group of veterans and Caldwell Realtors created the garden a few years ago. The original group has now moved on and is working on a therapeutic garden for veterans in Nampa, leaving the garden in the hands of veterans like Ron Manker and Dan Pugmire. Manker served in the Idaho Air Guard for 27 years. Pugmire served in the Air Force from 1986 to 1991. Manker, now the garden’s director, worked with the city to secure a 99-year lease on the garden land for $1 a year.

“The land is to be used for veterans and the community. Not just veterans, but any first-responder, anyone with PTSD. We’ve learned a lot about trauma through this garden,” said Manker.

Built entirely by volunteers and community donations, Manker believes the garden has become a place of safety and solace for veterans who have a hard time finding peace elsewhere.

“For veterans returning from war, part of PTSD is that you don’t trust people. You don’t want to be out of your house,” he said.

Most of the garden’s board members fit that profile at one time, he said. “Now they’re out there weekly, working and serving the community. That’s how that garden has affected people.”

Pugmire, a disabled veteran with a broad smile, has an uncanny ability to wrangle donations as the garden’s project manager.

I’m just good at telling people the truth about what’s going on here. Once I do that, they want to help. It’s not about me.

Dan Pugmire, project manager for the garden

He’s unequivocal that the garden saved his life. He is unable to work, so the garden has become his full-time “passion.” He met his wife, June, there when she planted a bed in honor of her son, who was not a veteran but who died by suicide. The bed expanded to memorialize eight local veterans who also took their own lives.

Dan and June planted nine cacti, one for each man. The cacti didn’t survive the winter, so they replaced them with a score of tulip bulbs that someone had donated. By chance, nine bulbs bloomed in the bed decorated with plastic angels.

“I don’t know how that happened, but I guess God knows,” said Pugmire.

He was dismayed to learn of another veteran’s recent suicide. He will plant a 10th bulb, he said.

The Idaho Veterans Garden is a place for veterans to commune with one another in a healing atmosphere, but also to reintegrate into the larger community. Donations and thousands of volunteer hours support the garden.

Honored to have a place

The first three in a long row of raised garden beds are designated for Gold Star families, those of soldiers who died in combat, including Army Spc. Carrie French, 19, who died in 2005, and Army Spc. Robert Dyas Jr., 21, who died in 2011. Small, laminated pictures of the soldiers decorate each bed. An angel, silk poinsettias and a sign reading “Hope” dot the bed for Army Staff Sgt. Octavio Herrera, 26, who died in 2013.

The bed dedicated to Dyas is notable for a metal cross made of horseshoes. Dyas’ father, Jerry Nowland, made the cross. Nowland founded the Horseshoe Cross Ministry about 20 years ago in Garden Valley. He makes the crosses and leaves them for people who are struggling, in need of comfort, or “wherever God leads me,” he said.

40,000 the number of hours volunteers have given at the garden over the past two years

A greenhouse in Garden Valley donates flowers each year in Dyas’ memory. The family is planning a trip to Caldwell soon to plant them at the garden.

“Some days it’s real easy to talk about Robert. Other days it’s pretty tough. But we feel really honored to have a place at the garden,” said Nowland. “I can’t say enough about Dan (Pugmire) and everything that’s going on there. God is at work there, healing our soldiers and their families.”

Paula Hylinski, Carrie French’s mother, said she took her time to decide what to plant in the bed she chose for Carrie.

“All of a sudden, it hit me. Carrie loved strawberries,” said Hylinski. So she packed the raised bed with everbearers — plants that will produce fruit until the first frost. She tends the strawberries regularly, watering twice a week. She recently cleared the straw she used as a winter mulch to protect them. When she harvests the berries, she leaves them in the garden’s gazebo for others to take.

“I didn’t have a soldier who came home. I don’t have someone to take care of. It makes me feel good that I can help in a tiny way,” Hylinski said. “In the grand scheme of things, I know growing strawberries is a tiny, tiny thing, but it’s like collecting pennies. You put a penny in a jar. Before you know it you have a whole jar of pennies and it adds up to something.”

How does the garden grow?

The garden is expanding, thanks to community donations. Manker tells the story of working there one day when an older man showed up and insisted that Manker get into his pickup. The man drove Manker to his storage lot nearby and told Manker to take his pick of sheds. The donated shed now sits in the corner of the garden.

$1 the annual rent that the Idaho Veterans Garden will pay the city of Caldwell for the next century

Others have made similar gestures. A fountain bubbles over rocks near the burn pit, the result of a veterans court service project. A Boy Scout installed flagpoles to earn his Eagle rank. Artist Zella Bardsley donated a sculpture with a metal globe, a line of soldiers and salvaged forks transformed into wind chimes.

The garden now has 27 raised beds. Another 10 will be installed because more veterans and community members want them. Garden organizers are inviting children to paint rocks to create edging for flower beds. Manker and Pugmire are also open to hearing ideas from the community about building the garden and helping veterans.

“This is just a garden. Just a stupid garden,” said Pugmire. “If something like this can save lives, just imagine some of the things we could do.”

You can help

The Idaho Veterans Garden is at 305 W. Belmont St. in Caldwell.

Contact the Idaho Veterans Garden or make a donation online at idahoveteransgarden.com or contact project manager Dan Pugmire at dannypugmire@hotmail.com or 208-713-3167 or Director Ron Manker at ron@crossstreetteam.com or 208-867-2655.

Donation opportunities include sponsoring a raised garden bed for $500, buying an engraved brick for $50, a Love Lock for Vets for $20 or an Idaho Veterans Garden decal for $5.

Project organizers invite children to paint rocks to create a border at the garden. Rocks should be between 4 and 10 inches across; all designs are welcome. Contact Dan Pugmire for information, or just deliver the painted rocks to the garden.

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