By RUSSELL JONES
Although his dream got off to a slow start, Bruce Fowler says his project, which has lofty goals, is finally getting some traction.
“It’s taken some time, had some rough patches, but we’re getting going now,” the stout ex-military man said. “I’ve been helping people and feeding people for years, but I wanted to create a place that served veterans.”
Fowler’s thick mustache twitches with a smile as he claims to be 29 years old, although he was born in 1950. He retired from the mountain battalion of the Army in 2010 as a staff sergeant. After he retired due to health problems, he was taken advantage of by someone close to him and lost his home, his money and a store that he owned where he sold goods he grew on his farm.
“I lost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I went to cash a $20 check at the bank and the bank manager ended up giving me $20 out of his pocket because all my accounts had been cleaned out and I needed money for gas.”
Fowler, broke and homeless but not one for failure or self-pity, did not sit around lamenting his losses. Instead, he decided to provide a support system for other veterans who might find themselves in a similar position.
No stranger to helping people, Fowler had fostered over 20 children in a 20-year period. After several successes, he began to foster the most violent of the children because he found that he could handle them when others couldn’t.
After Fowler left the service, he wanted to help fellow veterans. So, he bought a farm in Whiting in October of 2015 on Vermont 30, with the idea to provide veterans who were homeless or had other issues they were working through with a place to stay while they learned new skills and transitioned back into civilian life.
Fowler’s dream has been to have a working ranch that is self-sustaining, where two to three veterans stay until they find homes of their own, while 10 to 15 other veterans come and work on projects they enjoy each day.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping people, especially cooking for people,” the grizzled Army cook says as he slowly walks through his home with a foot that was broken a week prior. “If you haven’t eaten and I feed you, that’s something. That means a lot to people when they don’t have anything.”
The plan was to have younger veterans come to the farm and learn new trades or learn how to take military trades and use them to succeed in civilian life, but Marilyn Davis, who does the paperwork for Fowler’s corporation, said that is not how things have worked so far.
“What we ended up having were older vets, Vietnam vets,” Davis said. “If they just stay at home and don’t do anything, the war comes back for them.”
No problem too large
One of the biggest problems Fowler has faced with getting his project rolling is transportation. There is no easy way to get the veterans from where they are to his ranch.
“When we first started this, there was transportation,” Fowler said. “Now, there is no transportation for veterans who need to get somewhere. If you’re a homeless veteran in the woods, there is no one you can call who would come get you, and that sucks.”
This seems to be a topic that fires him up; as he gets more passionate the longer he talks about it.
“There is a bus that drives right by here to Brandon every day with one person on it,” he said. “They won’t stop here though because it’s not funded to stop, but they drive right by. We’re talking with them now so maybe some time in the future they’ll stop here.”
The Act 250 process can be a long, difficult procedure for some businesses, but Fowler said thanks to Davis’ help, they managed it fairly easy.
“I just couldn’t believe it took almost two years,” he said. “In the mountain battalion, there is no problem that takes more than a week to solve.”
Since he bought the house four years ago, Fowler has added a heating system and provided electricity to the upstairs, which only had one electric light, and is currently renovating another room with the hopes of adding a bedroom and bathroom. He has space for two vets now, and hopefully will have room for three in the future.
Fowler currently has chickens, pigs and a pair of Scottish Highlander cattle and recently was donated some woodworking equipment he is setting up in his barn. He has experience building and repairing cupolas and will soon start work on repairing the cupola from atop the Whiting school.
Although he said he was very thankful for all the help he has received, and he assured it has been a tremendous gift, Fowler said he could have had a lot more done if he had more help. He’d love to work something out with local schools to get children out learning how life on a farm works.
Two vets have already transitioned from staying at his ranch to their own homes, including a female veteran and her daughter, who stayed at Fowler’s ranch for several months before moving to Middlebury.
A group of Comcast employees, some of who are veterans and some who are military parents, gathered at the ranch in Whiting this past Friday, May 3, to get an early start on the company’s Comcast Cares Day.
The Comcast employees are part of the company’s Vet Net, and they came out to Fowler’s to help work on some projects he needed done. The group brought a load of lumber to replace parts of the barn, planted some flowers and was hoping to do some painting if the rain let up.
With Davis’ help, Fowler also received a $5,000 grant from the American Legion Foundation to build a new greenhouse. The grant requires a $1,000 match and Davis said she estimates the project will cost a total of $6,250.
“We’ve already raised $350 for the greenhouse, and we only got the grant last week,” Davis said. “It’s a 20’ x 60’ greenhouse and we’ll need help to build it, but it’s going to have raised beds so people in wheelchairs can work on them too.”
Fowler got some help in the form of a Kubota tractor that was donated last year, but which had a bad clutch that needed fixing. Fowler said he and some of the vets who learned with him figured it out and got it working. That tractor, much like his dream of providing a place for veterans to ease back into civilian life, is moving along now.
“I feed about 50 mouths a week right here,” Fowler said as he waves an arm towards his table. “There is nothing better than the look on someone’s face when they enjoy the meal you serve them.”