By: Robin Ford Wallace, Staff Reporter
Bill Lockhart of the American Legion had planned a hero’s welcome for National Guardsman Jeffrey Farmer, complete with speeches and confetti and the clicking cameras of the local press.
But red tape saved the day. Farmer, returning to the States in March from a deployment in Afghanistan, was mired in bureaucracy for a couple of weeks in Savannah and thus managed to sneak quietly back into Dade County April 2.
The low-key homecoming may have disappointed Lockhart, but it was just fine with Farmer. “I was trying not to think about it,” he said.
We were talking Monday at the Legion Hall, where I’d caught up with Farmer as he met there with Lockhart, and by “it,” he meant how on earth he was going to thank the Legion, Lockhart and in fact the whole Trenton/Dade community for their outpouring of help and support earlier this year.
Jeffrey Farmer is the Dade serviceman whose home was burglarized and possessions cleared out last fall while he was on active duty in the Mideast. Lockhart organized a fund drive to help replace what Farmer had lost, culminating in a community-wide benefit at the Legion Hall on Feb. 5 arranged jointly by the Legion and the Trenton Arts Council.
Techies from Dade County High School, the Bank of Dade and independent Internet service provider Kitepilot rigged a live video feed from Afghanistan so that Farmer could attend the benefit “virtually,” businesses and artists from all over the county donated goods to a silent auction, musicians performed, poets read, and the community turned out in impressive numbers to pay $10 a pop for seats.
Since then, Lockhart and crew have continued to collect, and the ending pot awaiting Farmer’s return was: $10,000 in cash, a Dodge Dakota pickup truck, tools, 64 new shirts from all over (one is from London and another from Africa), chainsaws, scuba gear, TVs – a lot, and it doesn’t seem to be drying up yet. “Rolling Thunder (an area bikers’ club) is taking me on a tool-buying spree sometime this week,” said Farmer. “They donated $500 for me to get new tools.”
I asked Farmer the obvious question: How does it feel to be the recipient of so much benevolence?
And he gave me the obvious answer: Good – but, you know, also weird. “I’m really grateful and” – he struggled for the next word – “thankful,” he concluded with conscious inadequacy.
I laughed, and he did too. “It’s hard to explain. You get used to saying ‘thank you’ so much, you don’t want it to lose its strength,” he said. “It is definitely overwhelming.”
But give him his due, Farmer, a slow-talking man of 40 with an air of being maybe not all that good with words, is thanking more or less nonstop these days. He had spoken that morning on a local radio show, he told me. He had addressed monthly meetings of both the Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars since his return, and Bill Lockhart has him calling Bingo games each Friday and Saturday night at the hall.
Farmer’s glad to do it. “If I hadn’t had all the support and come home to everything being lost, I’d have been definitely, if not a suicide statistic, definitely despondent and hopeless and depressed,” he said.
Farmer says he is particularly grateful to the American Legion for the help it offers veterans and active-duty servicemen in need. “It’s definitely opened my eyes to it more as a support network than just a social network,” he said.
Farmer has spent the past couple of weeks cleaning up and clearing out his vandalized home, he said, fixing burst plumbing pipes and hanging new doors. He’s also gotten his business license and insurance in place, ready to go back to remodeling and tree work. He sees this winter’s toll of downed trees as a possible windfall for his arborist line of business. “I can definitely take a break for a while, a month or two, just relax and get back in the swing of things,” he said. “But definitely if there’s a job out there, I’d definitely like to go climb it.”
Readers interested in engaging Farmer’s services may reach him at (423) 774-1931.
Farmer described his most recent service in the mountain deserts of Afghanistan as “business as usual,” not as dangerous and certainly more pleasant than his previous two tours of duty in Iraq. “It was just desert mountains, you couldn’t see the trees like you do here. It’d be all rock,” he said. Snow several feet thick on the ground frequently kept the helicopters from flying, he said, thus making for an easy day since the troops couldn’t go on ground missions without air support.
Weather-wise, he liked the cold better than the heat of Iraq. “It was 135 (degrees) easy, and then, with all that armor on?” he said. “But this time it was pretty tolerable.”
Farmer said he’d been hit with an IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq, though he wasn’t hurt. “The second tour it was just mortar barrage two or three times a week for about three months, and after that it slowed down,” he said. “This time it was just IEDs and ambushes.”
He attributed his relative safety to the protection afforded by good armor on today’s military vehicles. “They might get destroyed in the blast, but we’re able to walk out of them after that blast,” he said.
Farmer said he’d met many Afghans during foot patrols. “Some were friendly, some were not,” he said. “A lot of them were just wary, you know, standoffish.”
And the American troops were wary, too, he said. They never knew if a local was going to shoot them, run away or come effusively up to greet them in good, friendly English. Once, he said, a local had told him, “Thank you for being here and making our town safe.”
“That was a big surprise,” he said. “It seems surreal that that happens.”
Farmer is currently on leave, but in three months he will report back to his National Guard unit. He has two years left in his term of service, but expects to serve them Stateside as a “weekend warrior,” meanwhile engaged in his civilian work and perhaps taking some online courses paid for under the GI Bill.
As to what will happen when the two years are up, Farmer is not quite sure yet whether he’ll join back up. He’s glad to be home, but on the other hand he’s always sort of wanted to do a tour of duty in Africa. “It depends on what’s happening with the world, and with the civilian world, whether I might choose to go back over again,” he said. “I might re-up.”