Recreating at a corn maze and exploring a dairy farm could be looked upon as juvenile, boring, even lame to veterans who have seen the horrors of war. But when my Pennsylvania farmer friends, the Duncans, invited “my” veterans from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to their farm and corn maze, I saw it as a gift.

I run a 501c3 non-profit, called River House PA, where I take veterans who are in rehab programs at the local VA medical centers and lead them on nature outings. After we take them hiking or paddling, we feed them delicious home-cooked meals around the campfire in the woods by our Appalachian log home.

The natural world lifts their spirits and brings them peace as well as being with those who care. D.J. and Loretta Duncan offered their corn maze and dairy farm in Robesonia to my vets. They hoped a unique evening at one of the loveliest dairy farms in Berks County doing fun things could be a great release from the intense rehab programs they are enrolled in.

When the long vans pulled up, two dozen vets tumbled out, and their rec therapists gave them the rundown of the day: corn maze exploration with a challenge game attached; gourd chucking with giant slingshots aiming at toilet bowls and other metal contraptions; sliding down the inside of black, ribbed irrigation tubes; a hay ride; a farm tour to the milking parlor to see how cows are automatically milked; and meeting the baby calves just born.

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See more photos of the tour and farm here, or click on the image above.


They prepared Bunyan Burgers themselves and cooked them over charcoal, then ignited colored paper lanterns and released them into the night sky.

As soon as they spotted the giant slingshots, however, they were off. Something to shoot. Loretta gave the vets empty buckets and instructed them to go into the fields and gather gourds. One came back with a huge neck pumpkin. “Not that! That’s to make pumpkin pie,” but they would have used anything as ammunition.

The vets behaved like little kids, cheering each other’s accomplishments when their gourd whacked something right on. They slid through the irrigation tubes and paired off to ride the see-saws. Happy laughter echoed through the fields.

Loretta finally pulled them away and handed out the cue sheet to find multiple locations inside the corn maze. The first team to find all of them would win. They ran off, helping one another and playing in the sunlight like youngsters. No one was thinking about therapy or rehab. They returned to a simpler, happier time before drugs and alcohol, depression and post-traumatic stress.

After the maze, my board member Tim Minnich taught the vets how to assemble and build their foil-wrapped Bunyan Burgers using a ground beef patty, a selection of sliced potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, peppers and a gravy/sauce mix with a little water.

When they were cooked, the vets slowly unwrapped the foil, allowing the steam and the delicious aromas to escape. No one could believe how incredibly delicious they were and that they made them themselves.

The tractor was brought down with a long hay wagon attached, and the vets climbed aboard. Next up was the milking parlor, where they saw how the 160 cows were ushered in, their teats cleaned and disinfected, the milking machine attached and the milk extracted.

Although some of the vets are muscle-pumped and tattooed, the huge cows could be slightly intimidating if you are a city boy, which is true for some. While learning about the milking process, the questions flowed – about work load, milk quantity, the cows’ diet, their schedule, how long they live, and on and on. They were truly fascinated and excited to learn.

Joe in the calf pens

Next was the calf barn, where the vets were surprised to learn how desperately the young calves want to suck on their fingers, for many are newborns and have the uncontrollable desire to nurse. A few of the vets jumped right into the pens to bond with the babies. Some even talked softly to them like cow whisperers.

Back at the campfire, the rec therapists, Amy and Ida, asked the vets to take turns sharing what the event has meant to them. The therapists began by saying the day had done their hearts good to hear the vets laugh and feel so genuinely happy. The week had been challenging for many of the vets, and they had arrived at the farm feeling down. All of that dissipated.

One vet said, “I was reminded today there is a whole other life out here for me – sober.”

Jason Knoll bottle feeding a newbor calfAnd another, “I enjoyed being a kid again. I realize I could be and I should be doing these kinds of things with my own son.”

Some of the vets said they experienced up to six firsts in their life there at the Duncan Farm. And one 40-year-old vet says that it had truly been, “the best day of his life.” Loretta and DJ sat transfixed as they listened.

Before the vets departed for the medical center, I took out the brightly colored paper lanterns and began to light them. The vets very gently held the lantern open and helped it expand. The colored tissue paper swelled from the hot inside air and they could feel the lantern tugging to go up, into the heavens.

Soon, with soft fingertips, they released them. We threw our heads back and watch the illuminated lanterns climb higher and higher into the night sky – glowing colored orbs floating and gently rocking with the stars.

“I feel a real release inside of me,” a vet admitted as he let go of his lantern. “A lifting up, a letting go of my past life. Today gave me a lot of hope.”

The Duncans had never met these vets before, yet they gifted them this amazing evening. That is huge in the veterans’ eyes and did much to restore their faith in humanity and life itself. Who would have thought a corn maze and a dairy farm experience could do so much?

A small thing for a farmer, sharing their familiar world; a potential life-changing experience for struggling, suffering veterans who are trying to find their way back.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Cindy Ross of River House PA, organizes nature outings for veterans who are in rehab programs at the local VA medical centers. One recent outing was to a Pennsylvania dairy farm and corn maze. 

PHOTO 2: At the dairy, a few of the veterans, including Vietnam veteran Joe* jumped right into the pens to bond with the calves. *No last name provided

PHOTO 3: Jason Knoll is trying his hand at bottle feeding a newborn calf. He does some serious bonding after he quickly gets the hang of it. The act is capable of igniting the parenting and nurturing instincts in the vets, says Cindy Ross. Photos by Cindy Ross.

Cindy Ross is the author of seven books with the latest being The World is Our Classroom – How One Family Used Nature & Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education, Skyhorse Pub, NYC. She and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, run River House PA, a non-profit organization that provides the skills necessary to enable participants to go into the natural world and feel comfortable, confident and safe. Learn more at River House PA.