At night, helicopters from Fort Bragg pass over Davon Goodwin’s camper, flying low with their lights turned off, feeling their way through the darkness above the farm where he works and sleeps.
If he’s not careful, his mind fills in the rest, the bombs going off, the popping of near and distant gunfire joining together with the whirr of helicopter blades, forming a symphony of war.
The sounds don’t transport him back to Afghanistan, because it’s always in him. But he’s starting to make room for the rest of his life.
Growing up in Pittsburgh until the day he left for college, Goodwin went to UNC-Pembroke in 2007 with dreams of becoming a botanist and using plants to find new cures for cancer. To pay for school, he enlisted in the Army Reserves as a freshman, but after three years felt compelled to deploy, signing up for a tour in Kuwait with missions to Iraq, transporting heavy equipment. Then orders changed, sending Goodwin and half his unit to Afghanistan in 2010.
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In his seventh month of deployment, Goodwin’s truck was in a convoy blown up by a series of IEDs. Everyone in his truck survived, but Goodwin’s back was broken in two places and he had a traumatic brain injury. He was airlifted to Germany for treatment and returned to the United States.
Today, there are two Davons on either side of that explosion, Goodwin said, and its shockwaves continue for him and his family. Goodwin suffers from PTSD and lives with severe narcolepsy from his brain injury.
“There’s a lot of collateral damage,” Goodwin said. “Just because I’m not dead doesn’t mean I’m alive. There’s a life that was taken from me that I won’t get back. ... I compare the Davon then and now. They’re two different people. Their goals are different, their aspirations are different.”
For the last six years, Goodwin, 29, has been figuring out the new Davon, the one he never planned or expected. This Davon has found a new purpose in the low sandy fields of Eastern North Carolina. Here in Hoke, Richmond and Scotland counties, Goodwin has emerged as an agricultural leader, working on issues of sustainable farming and food justice. He’s the manager of the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, an aggregator that helps small farms get their products into new markets.
He’s a longtime volunteer at Growing Change, a group turning an abandoned Scotland County prison into a farm tended by at-risk youth. In December, Goodwin will head to New York to be the keynote speaker at the annual Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, which is perhaps best known for its on-site restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. (The restaurant is considered the 12th best restaurant in the world in a recent ranking.)
But day to day, Goodwin is a farmer, taking care of grapes and pigs, which in turn take care of him.
“It all became therapeutic. The land and animals don’t judge you,” Goodwin said. “Farming is just bigger than growing to me. Farming saved my life.”
The healing begins
After the explosion, Goodwin became lost and angry. He and his longtime girlfriend, Kenya Fuller, a nurse from Charlotte he met at UNC-Pembroke, had a son, Amir. Goodwin said he was distant and unhelpful, even asleep during Amir’s birth, due to his then-undiagnosed narcolepsy. He went back to school and finished his botany degree one class at a time. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he did so with a trauma-wracked brain. But Goodwin wasn’t happy.
“I felt like a jackass,” Goodwin said. “I didn’t feel right. I’m a goal-oriented person. I could have a master’s degree by now. My family was cheering me on, but I wasn’t proud of myself.”
His dreams of graduate school and working in a lab were over, and interviews for jobs in forestry, wildlife and extension offices all ended with Goodwin being told his narcolepsy was a liability they couldn’t afford. That’s when he turned to farming.
Goodwin had never seen a pig before he came to UNC-Pembroke, and he didn’t know North Carolina grew grapes. But his life changed when Dr. Neil and Soledad Griffin gave Goodwin a two-week tryout to manage their 400-acre Fussy Gourmet farm in Raeford.
“As humans we’re connected to the land,” Goodwin said. “When I started working at the farm and really got my hands dirty, that’s where the healing began.”
The pig taught him patience, and in the Muscadine grapes, he saw himself in the seasons, the dormant vines of winter and the first buds of spring.
“Life is not this seamless and straight line,” Goodwin said. “There are cycles to it. The grapes, there’s such a burst of new life in the spring. It’s so precious that those beginning leaves make it. It’s so important for me to make it. Not just for me but for my family.”
In September, Goodwin bought his own farm, 42 acres in Scotland County, where he’ll move his Off the Land name. There he’ll be joined by Fuller and their now 6-year-old son Amir.
Goodwin’s farm is well within the earshot of those helicopters that could trigger his PTSD. That risk is worth the community he’s found, Goodwin said.
“Without my community, I don’t think I would be as productive as I am,” Goodwin said. “I’m trying to repay the investment they made in me. This community is sensitive to the effects of the military. I don’t think I would get the same type of receptiveness if we moved somewhere else.”
Goodwin is hopeful about moving to the farm, of being in the same house as Fuller and Amir and moving forward together. In February they’ll move into their house, where Amir is most excited about his promised bunk beds.
“As you go down there’s always an up part,” Goodwin said. “I think now we’re on the upswing, we’re over a hump. We’re not in the low valley anymore.”
‘The War Within’
▪ This month, watch “The War Within,” a 10-part documentary series about Davon Goodwin and other retired veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who are helping others cope with the effects of PTSD. Go to facebook.com/WarWithinShow.
▪ Learn more about Growing Change, the group helping at-risk youth through farming. Growing Change, 22600 Wagram Road, Wagram, NC. 910-280-4150 or growingchange.org