Coping with PTSD, a Veteran Finds a Way Back to Peace through Farming

Nov 10, 2016

Brian Athearn (left) and Tom Rancich in their walk-in cooler at RunAmok Farm in West Tisbury
Credit Photo by Ali Berlow


There are many paths to becoming a farmer. Some find it after returning home from war and tours of duty. Veteran Tom Rancich, a retired Navy SEAL on Martha’s Vineyard, shares his story about raising animals, adjusting to civilian life and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

AB: Tom Rancich is a war veteran and a self-described sharecropper. He’s done combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He worked in special forces, on bomb squads, and retired as a decorated Navy SEAL, awarded the Bronze Star. Around 2005 he moved to Martha’s Vineyard and like many vets, found conforming to civilian life a challenge. Every day, he says, he still thinks about being a Navy SEAL. We met at RunAmok Farm in West Tisbury:

Tom: In veteran groups, this is cliché. There is no, no greater experience than being at war. Everything you do, or say, accomplish or don’t accomplish, is, it matters, it’s life or death. Every second.

AB: Farming is something that he came to later in life, around 2010. And it brought a huge change for him.

Tom: This whole thing started for me when my best friend and girlfriend, Liz Packer, introduced me to farming through a couple of pigs. And I never ever thought I’d be interested in any of it.

AB: An estimated one-in-five of all returning vets* suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Farming turns out to be rehabilitative and a refugee for many.

Tom: PTSD is something different for everybody that is going through it. My biggest one, which I’ll never be over it, but I’m largely able to see the triggers, is, sitting there going, ‘Why get up today? Nothing exciting is going to happen’.

AB: But the deal is, when you farm and raise livestock - animals depend on you for food, water, shelter, and safety from predators. So, you have to get up in the morning.

Tom: You know, and this sounds stupidier and stupider every time I say it….but that’s what I like about raising animals is you know they’re always happy to see me and I know that it’s because I’m bringing them hay.

AB: These days, Tom raises cows, sheep and pigs with Liz, his girlfriend, and Brian and Kate Athearn of RunAmok Farm in West Tisbury.

Tom: We know exactly how all of our animals were treated. We know exactly the situation they were raised in and how they were killed. And we kill them, we harvest them, as humanely as we can figure out how to do. They’re not corralled, they’re not pushed into a pen, they’re not dragged anywhere. They’re just in their normal day environment and then the lights go out. You know one of our traditions is that we always thank the animals for what they did for us, and what they’re going to do for us. From a guy who spent a life doing what I did, that’s really holistic for me. Because, you know, I killed a bunch of people I didn’t know.

AB: Tom praises and credits Community Services on Martha’s Vineyard for counseling him. To me it’s amazing how open he is and how easily he speaks about his war experiences.

Tom: There is a veteran out there today… who’s going to take… there is a veteran out there today who is going to take his or her life. My belief is that if I don’t talk, then what did we really do it all for?

Apple at RunAmok farm
Credit Ali Berlow

  AB: The walk-in cooler is calm and Tom and Brian Athearn are getting ready to butcher a couple of their cows for their families and friends.

Tom: The ability to be part of a community - and you’re included in it - that wants to ask me a question….you know…I was the leading counter-terrorism person in the United States Navy for three years… and I now I have to listen to Brian bitch about the way I’m skinning a cow….

Brian: That’s true.

Tom: Cuz I don’t do it as good as he does. My cow, his cow ...

Brian: Hey is that on the record?

Ali Berlow is the author of the The Food Activist Handbook.

The Local Food Report is produced by Atlantic Public Media.


Farmer Veteran Coalition:

US Dept. of Veteran Affairs:

National AgrAbility Project:

Northeast SARE: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education:

Veterans Food Production Program: Howard Hinterthuer at TEDxManhattan:

On Martha’s Vineyard:

Tom Bennett at, or 508.693.7900 ext. 211.

For information about the Veterans Outreach Program and its monthly presentations, contact Julie Meader at, or 508.693.7900 ext. 223.

For help during a mental health crisis/emergency, dial 508.693.0032.