Over the past decade, nearly one million rural Americans have served in the U.S. military.
But in the current economic climate, returning veterans often face another battle finding gainful employment as civilians.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among military veterans declined in March to around 9 percent. Though improving, that’s still nearly 2 points higher than the overall national average.
But one Iraq War Veteran made the transition from warrior to worker effectively by embarking on a new mission to fulfill his agricultural dream.
Rural America could be considered fertile ground for patriotism. The ties of close-knit communities foster certain sentiments about people, the land, and hard work. And for some, protecting this way of life is more than just an option or an expectation… It’s a given.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska:"I was done with high school…1995. Six days later I was standing tall in the yellow footprints at Paris Island, South Carolina for Marine Corp boot camp. My mom was a Marine and so I told the recruiters I wouldn’t sign anything unless they had in writing I could go to Paris Island and graduate from the same place my mom did 20 years prior.”
Dan Hromas pursued a military career that took him across the globe. But wherever the young Nebraskan was stationed, his thoughts would eventually turn to home.
Dan Hromas:"One of my favorite memories as a child, growing up in Lincoln, is every other summer the folks would take me and my younger brother and sister and we'd go up and visit grandma and the uncles on the farm in North Dakota. They had chickens roaming about the farmstead and it was like an Easter egg hunt every day we were out there."
Reminiscing over similar rural traditions helped some homesick troops make it through long deployments.
Dan Hromas: "We could have been talking about playing cards or about any number of things but the common thread that we had was agriculture."
Once back stateside, Hromas’ dreams of farm life began to germinate. Stationed in New York State, he struck a deal with a local dairyman to help milk 80 cows in exchange for hunting rights. But the soldier soon found more fulfillment in work than play.
Dan Hromas:"I really enjoyed that. It was early days, long hours, but there's something about working on a farm that I think brings out the best in people because it teaches a very good work ethic."
While he loved agriculture, Hromas prioritized his military service and the benefits it could provide. Once his initial commitment to the Marines concluded, he enlisted in the Army and earned a college degree. But while pursuing a master’s, the Cornhusker’s educational path took a detour.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "I was doing research for about a year and a half before I got the phone call calling me up for deployment to Iraq.”
Shortly after arriving in the war-torn country, Hromas commanded a team during a massive troop buildup that came to be know as “The Surge”.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "I was more than happy to answer the same call that my great uncle and grandpa did during World War II…my dad did during the Vietnam War era….”
And while the controversial addition of 20,000 American troops in 2007 has been cheered by some for stabilizing Iraq, the long-term impacts of such tactics can be a more elusive calculation.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "There’s always those, you know, invisible wounds. It’s very tough on everybody mentally when you lose a couple people, when you see things that the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t see. You know, it can be tough to deal with sometimes.”
Health care and other support for wounded warriors is administered nationwide by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Doctors say for conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, engagement is key.
Dr. Todd Fleischer/Chief of Psychology – Nebraska/Western Iowa VA Health Care System: “We really hate to see stigma or misconceptions prevent people from seeking treatment. There are effective treatments for it and getting out with farming and other social activities is one piece of effective treatment for PTSD.”
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "When I’m out here it’s a way for me to detach or forget about everything outside these walls, outside of this farm. It keeps me busy, it keeps me active and it, you know, helps me to move on.”
Owning his own agricultural operation turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Hromas. And by networking through the VA, he found a variety of state agencies and other groups that help veterans realize their entrepreneurial dreams.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: “There’s a good financial reason for doing what I’m doing now. It’s a low start up cost, starting up a small poultry operation, you know, compared to wanting to start up a dairy farm. Then there’s the memories as a kid gathering up the eggs, being around the chickens on the farm in North Dakota...”
Hillary Hromas/York, Nebraska: “Yeah, I think it’s been a great help for him to help him feel busy and be something that he’s interested in and something that can be a service to other people.”
A $6000 grant and a $35,000 microloan covered the startup costs for Hromas’ Prairie Pride Poultry. And now three coops on three acres of land outside York, Nebraska house a flock of 600 Rhode Island Reds. The winter-hearty breed was able to withstand the frigid weather, and began producing eggs early this year.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "Our motto here at Prairie Pride Poultry is happy hens lay healthy eggs.”
Embracing a strategy of sustainability, Hromas’ free-range chickens aren’t fed antibiotics or hormones, and they’re given the space to roam and eat healthy grass and bugs. Sticking to his values has allowed the veteran’s operation to produce an economically viable product.
Carol Blood/Nebraska Self-Employment Services: “We want our business plan to be a true road map for business success.”
Business Specialist Carol Blood of Nebraska Self-Employment Services gave the green light to Prairie Pride Poultry. But Blood pulls no punches with disabled veterans and is quick to note the pitfalls – and potential – of being their own boss. Hromas continues to receive business advice from the agency, which boasts an impressive track record in assessing the feasibility of new ventures.
Carol Blood/Nebraska Self-Employment Services: “Our success rate is around 71%. National success rate for people without disabilities is about 33%. So, almost three times the national average.”
And that success resonates with Prairie Pride Poultry. Dan Hromas’ hard work has garnered national recognition via point-of-sale branding on products produced by veteran farmers. And he has advice for fellow veterans considering a career in agriculture.
Dan Hromas/York, Nebraska: "You have to go out and meet them halfway. You have to seek it out, do your research, be diligent and, you know, keep at it. When you knock on their door they’re going to open it and they’re going to help you. And I’m living proof of that. They opened the door when I went knocking.”
For Market To Market, I’m Josh Buettner.