other soldiers and I went to get the paper clip tattoo, I decided to
get mine on my right hand.”
Apparently, there’s an acronym for it: People Against People
Ever Reenlisting. Civilian Life Is Preferred. Eventually, she wants
her whole body to serve as a gallery for tattoos, culminating in
a huge mural depicting the tree of life on her back. Her next tat
will be a gira=e stretching its long neck across her deltoid, where
it will snack from the tree’s fruit-laden boughs.
Since her honorable discharge in 2010, Crystal has agitated
for peace with organizations such as Under the Hood Cafe, Ft.
Hood Disobeys, March Forward!, and IVAW, but the apogee of
her activism occurred in 2011, when she joined five other vets in
barricading Highway 190 in Killeen, Texas — an interstate used
by Fort Hood for mass deployments. Garbed in black Disobey
t-shirts, she and the other demonstrators arranged themselves
across the road and unfurled a homemade banner that read: “Tell
the Brass to Kiss My Ass, Your Families Need You More.” Their
barricade stalled six busloads of soldiers deploying to Iraq, and
even though it was a crime punishable by up to six months in
federal prison, she felt the cause of peace was worth it.
When I ask Crystal why she left IVAW for organic farming, she
speaks of activism much in the way Steve did, noting wearily that
performative protest seemed increasingly impotent, little more
than mass catharsis. “It doesn’t do much good to hang around
a street corner with a sign,” she says. “Now I’m feeding people
nutritious food. There’s nothing more fundamental than that.”
Later that day, we tramp down to the hoop house where Steve
is watering the sweet-corn seedlings. Crystal’s phone buzzes in
her pocket, its screen glowing through the fabric. “It’s probably
Mission Continues,” she says.
“Right, because who else would be calling you?” Steve jokes.
He and I walk toward the packing shed to give her some
“She’s gonna get it,” he says. “This will be great.” When I
ask what the grant entails, he says it’ll provide her with a $900
monthly stipend, a nice complement to the $300 a week he can
a=ord to pay her now, a pittance considering she works twelve- to
She comes out of the hoop house. Even though the phone
is still pressed to her ear, she’s shaking her head, mouthing,
“Fuck,” Steve says, kicking at the dirt. “Fucking bullshit.” He
stalks o= toward the edge of the tomato plants, his eyes roving
across the fields, panning quickly, assessing everything he sees.
The spirit of some dark contemplation gathers in his expression
as he considers all the fronts on which he seems to be waging a
Crystal finally hangs up and walks over. “They said my
situation was too unconventional. She said that three times,
Steve snorts. “It’s probably because you didn’t say guns and
freedom enough in your application.” He storms toward the
onion beds and fetches a crate glutted with tools. When I o=er to
lend a hand, he says, “No, that’s okay. When I’m pissed, I need
to lift things.”
Halfway to the onions, he halts abruptly and drops every-
thing, falling to his knees beside a row of summer squash,
whose broad, frondlike leaves are spattered with pale spots. “Is
that blight?” I ask.
“Yeah. Shit,” he says, running a hand over his face. “I knew it
was coming, but not this soon.”
Smedley emerges from the cornfields, his fur strewn with
leaves and burrs, and he weaves around Steve’s legs, sensing
distress. With a jeweler’s scrutiny, Steve inverts the leaves of the
squash plant to inspect their veiny underbellies, which insects
have munched into doilies. When he finally speaks, his voice is
just shy of a whisper. “You know, sometimes I consider getting
out of veterans’ advocacy.”
I ask him what else he would do.
“I don’t know. I have other passions. Environmental sustainability. Civil Engineering. Politics. I could do other things. Maybe
run for mayor?” he says, smirking.
In a futile attempt to leaven his mood, I o=er a blizzard of
look-on-the-bright-side comments. Maybe the Department of
Voc-Rehab will approve his appeal and the grant for new equipment will come through. Maybe the farm will get approved by
the Fair Share Coalition, which has a program that would allow
his customers to buy produce through their health insurance,
which would undoubtedly increase his business.
“Something better work out,” he says. “Because if one of
these grants doesn’t go our way, there might not be a year three.”
DESPITE THESE significant financial woes, Steve continues to
set up a farm stand every Wednesday at the local VA. One morning I wait for him in the humming florescence of the hospital
gift shop, amid a garish accumulation of candy and snacks.
There’s also aisle upon aisle of patriotic clothes — collared shirts
silk-screened with bald eagles, windbreakers emblazoned with
undulant flags. If you’ve ever wondered where veterans get those
legion caps stitched with phrases like Vietnam Vet and Proud to
Serve, the answer is the VA gift shop. Near the back of the store,
a wall of TVs plays Will Smith’s I, Robot, and for a few minutes I
watch the Fresh Prince unload rounds of artillery into a grove of