Filmmakers Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson say that their new documentary Terra Firma isn’t another movie about “messed up vets.” In a story that is more about healing than politics, the directors of Grow! follow three female soldiers as they overcome post-traumatic stress disorder by planting seeds and raising food.
“All those things I’ve seen over the years serving in the military, those unseen scars that people don’t know about, when I come here I feel them healing,” Navy Convoy Commander Althea Raiford tells the camera while walking across her family’s lush Georgia farm.
Raiford grows fruit and vegetables with her brother. Spanish moss drips from the trees around their greenhouse and orchard. So much beauty is a stark contrast to the rubble-filled streets where Raiford spent years driving supplies to troops in Kuwait.
Like the film’s other two subjects, Army and National Guard soldier Sonia Kendrick and Army Civil Affairs Specialist Anna Mann, Raiford struggled with anxiety and depression after she returned from the War on Terror. All three women found strength in the soil when they joined the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC), a nonprofit that connects returning soldiers to resources and training in agriculture.
With support from FVC, Raiford became the sixth generation to farm on her family’s land, while Mann, who also served in Iraq, bought several acres with her husband to raise Animal Welfare Approved eggs and pork in North Carolina. After she came back from Afghanistan, Kendrick spearheaded a program growing produce for the homeless on urban plots in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“One of the most common reasons for PTSD in soldiers is the feeling that they’ve lost their mission; they don’t know what to do now,” says Michael O’Gorman, Executive Director of FVC. “Farming gives veterans a new sense of purpose. It offers them something that’s challenging, but rewarding.”
Or as Mann says in the film, her backyard thrumming with the sound of crickets, honeybees, and the resident rooster, “Before we came here, I didn’t know what I was good at. Farming has built a lot of confidence back for me. I’m good at this. I own my business. I’m a mom. I’m a respectable member of society.”
All three women in Terra Firma speak with rare honesty about their journey to farming, as well as their sacrifice as soldiers. Until an ACLU lawsuit last summer pressured the Pentagon to lift its ban, the military officially barred women from combat roles. Yet, as Kendrick, Mann and Raiford’s stories testify, the 280,000 female soldiers deployed to the Middle East since 9/11 have hardly been spared the brutalities of war.
“In Kuwait and Afghanistan, they were at constant risk just like any man. But after they returned home, all they heard was you can’t have PTSD, because you weren’t in combat,” says Masterson. “Farming gave them a way to heal. They’ve seen enough death. Now they can be creative, instead of destructive. They can work in a quiet, peaceful setting and be their own boss.”
What might have felt like a partisan push to end the war in the hands of another director doesn’t in Masterson’s moving film. Terra Firma never ask whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was right or wrong. The women themselves aren’t looking for pity, but to speak in real terms about the psychological impacts of war and their own farm-road to recovery.
“When I was in the Army, I was a servant to my people. I served my country,” says Kendrick. “Now I’m a farmer and I’m able to serve my people again.”
You can find information on future screenings of Terra Firma or schedule a showing in your community at the film’s website.