Arleen Gibson and Mike Dailey stand in the overgrown veteran garden at Hope Horses ‘N Healing, owned by Gibson, in Monroe. (Hannah Sheil / The Herald)

Arleen Gibson and Mike Dailey stand in the overgrown veteran garden at Hope Horses ‘N Healing, owned by Gibson, in Monroe. (Hannah Sheil / The Herald)

A better place: Monroe veteran garden is a spot to heal

“Even though I’m cutting blackberries sitting on a milk crate in the rain, I’m happy,” says an Army vet.

MONROE — Just off U.S. 2 in Monroe, nestled among acres of farm fields filled with horses and cows, is a patch of blackberry bushes.

Wrapping their branches around the once-productive raised garden beds abandoned to mother nature, the encroaching vines seem eager to reclaim their turf.

Mike Dailey, armed with a pair of thick gloves and rose pruners, is the thorny thicket’s worst nightmare — a spunky nightmare at that.

“Even though I’m cutting blackberries sitting on a milk crate in the rain, I’m happy,” he said.

Dailey, a six-year Army veteran, is taking on the jungle of blackberries in an attempt to restore the organic therapy program garden at the Hope Horses ’N Heroes (H3) farm.

A few years ago, the garden was in its early stages, with plans of offering therapeutic benefits and fresh food.

“I’m just trying to help people,” Dailey said. “Most of the veterans in Seattle never get to see a farm. I know there’s a lot of guys who think they can’t do anything.”

Diabetes cost Dailey half a foot and half a leg, and caused a whole lot of other medical complications.

With the help of a prosthetic leg, he makes his way around the uneven garden ground, finding a place to rest on a milk crate or tub when he gets too tired. He rides in an electric wheelchair most of the time.

A singer, songwriter and painter, gardening has now become another one of Dailey’s passions, giving him something to do and relieving his depression. The more time he spends in the garden, the more he wants to be out there.

The Snohomish County Veterans Assistance Program referred Dailey to the H3 farm. A Kitsap County farm he had been visiting was too far to travel on public transit.

“When Mike called I thought, ‘You’re just the man to take this on,’” H3’s Arleen Gibson said.

Mike Dailey cuts blackberry bush branches, expanding the garden area at the Hope Horses ‘N Healing farm. (Hannah Sheil / The Herald)

Mike Dailey cuts blackberry bush branches, expanding the garden area at the Hope Horses ‘N Healing farm. (Hannah Sheil / The Herald)

Gibson is the founder and president of H3. A horse enthusiast, Gibson is the daughter of a World War II veteran who suffered from what was at the time referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” Nowadays, most people know it as post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a friend suffered PTSD symptoms from serving in the Gulf War, Gibson offered her farm as a healing place.

Over time, his symptoms and negative coping mechanisms lessened. Spending time on the farm with the horses provided peaceful companionship and rebuilt his emotional strength.

Now, H3 serves veterans and active military members struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or sexual assault by supporting their healing process. Whether it’s working with the horses through equine-assisted learning or living in one of the farm’s two cabins, veterans can decompress and relax at the H3 farm.

A post in the community Facebook group alerted the members to the new volunteer opportunity. At first, Dailey wasn’t sure if anyone would reply.

Then, comments started pouring in — people wanted to help.

The owner of Coastal Farm and Ranch donated two large galvanized tubs. One man transported them by truck to the garden. Others have donated coffee grounds, top soil and seeds, and a handful of people have spent time clearing the blackberry bushes with Dailey.

Dailey has big plans for not only the garden, but other programs that may arise.

In his Monroe apartment community, he has a small, raised garden tub that he can easily roll up to in his wheelchair. He hopes to make gardening more accessible for those with mobility issues through a garden tub delivery program.

On the farm, he’d love to host classes for local residents and veterans alike. School groups could come on field trips, he said.

The entrance of the garden will have a small bridge, with trees above for visitors to grab an apple on their way in. A sign will read, “A bridge to a better place.”

“When you’re watching Mike and seeing him in the wheelchair or the prosthetic and all that he’s accomplishing, it just gives you faith in mankind and what we can do when we all pull together and have passion,” Gibson said.

As for now, Dailey will be working on restoring the garden until the snow falls.

“It needs refurbishing and it needs people to come out and love it,” Dailey said. “That’s what I’m trying to do because I still have it in me to do it.”

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