Marin County's Ranchin' Vets helps veterans land on their feet

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San Francisco Police Officer Kevin Downs and his wife, Corey, say nobody knows better than a veteran what sacrifices are made to protect the nation’s great land.

And through their non-profit organization, Ranchin’ Vets, they've found that there's no one better suited to care for that land than a veteran.

The Marin County couple founded the organization, which serves post 9/11 vets, five years ago after Kevin’s brother, retired Capt. Phil Downs Jr., 26, of Dublin returned from two tours of Iraq as a combat Marine, and had challenges returning to civilian life.

Ranchin' Vets puts veterans to work on farms and ranches through partnerships with agricultural industry employers in and out of state.

“Vets have to figure the next chapter of their life upon exiting combat and that can be a trying time when you are trying to figure out what’s next,’’ Kevin Downs said.

His brother landed on his feet and is now an attorney in San Francisco. But not all vets are so fortunate.

The unemployment rate last month for post 9/11 veterans was 3.6 percent, compared to 2.7 percent rate for all veterans, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A survey of 4,300 veterans, published last month by the advocacy group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, shows that 90 percent of respondents said they had some level of challenges following their transition out of the military.

Sixty-six percent did not have a job, 37 percent felt they couldn’t manage their money and 23 percent did not have a home upon returning to civilian life.

Experts say there are many reasons why. Employers don’t always appreciate that younger veterans are mature and skilled and make good employees. What's more, there has been increasingly wide spread news coverage of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, often stigmatizing veterans.

Furthermore, some say, veterans aren’t getting the backing they need from the government.

“Veterans issues continue to move further down the priority list of our country’s leaders. Yet veterans continue to be used as political pawns,’’ said the group’s founder Paul Rieckhoff. “This survey clearly explains what (veterans) need to hear from our commander-in-chief and all stakeholders, and what we as Americans need to demand from our elected officials and government leaders.”

The Downs are doing their part to help.

“What we noticed is not all vets are suited to sit behind a desk and working outside on a ranch or a farm provides them with an opportunity where they can find peace, but also meaningful work,’’ said Corey Downs.

Kevin Downs echoed his wife’s sentiments.

“One of our goals, first and foremost, is to provide work," he said, "but also create an environment that is peaceful.”

Kevin Downs knows first-hand about the benefits of peaceful work that is away from the Bay Area’s hustle and bustle. Working as a police officer in San Francisco, he was shot in the head last year while on a call. He has since returned to work and said he is doing “good,’’ during a recent interview. But long before he became a police officer, he had a more tranquil job.

During summer breaks and back home from his Maryland college, he worked at Stemple Creek, a Marin County cattle ranch.

“At the end of every day when the sun was going down and the fog was rolling in I would drive my four-wheeler to the top of the hill, turn off the engine and just listen,’’ he recounted. “All I could hear was the sound of the cows ripping the grass from the earth. It was incredibly peaceful. We want to share that experience with our veterans" 

His first day on the ranch, veteran Justin Hahn helped brand 120 calves and in his eight  months in the program he's assisted in gathering, sorting, and processing the cattle.

"Because of the flexible hours I have been able to focus on pursuing my degree in engineering while at the same time I am building a stronger body of knowledge in various fields of work,'' he said. 

Hahn is just one of more than two dozen vets the program has helped.

In addition to getting vets back to work, the organization, through donations, grants and fundraisers, provides veterans a stipend to assist in housing, transportation and clothing expenses associated with work. Ranchin' Vets also partnerships with other local and national veteran’s organizations.

Corey Downs said that if they can’t help them, they will find someone who can.