Disabled veterans digging up history for health

Jonathan Kaupanger
May 16, 2018 - 2:18 pm

Photo by A1C Alexandria Lee


There is a secret weapon slowly gaining popularity that fights post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.  It also relieves allergies, is used to treat leprosy, helps with lung cancer, lowers the risk of dementia and helps build a sense of purpose.  There aren’t negative side effects and there’s absolutely no chance of chemical dependency

Oh, and it makes you more attractive too.

Other countries have been using this to help veterans, the British since 2011 and the Israeli military is about to start the program.  “I thought this needs to be happening for our guys, for our vets,” said Air Force veteran Stephen Humphreys.  “This needs to happen for American veterans.  We need to kick off one of these programs in the states.”

The secret weapon is....good old American dirt. 

Humphreys is the CEO of American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR), and he started the program in 2016 and has been working with American veterans ever since. 

Technically it’s not the dirt, it’s a naturally occurring soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae).  Scientists discovered when ingested into the human body, M. vaccae activates serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain.  These are the same nerves targeted by Prozac.

AVAR works specifically with disabled veterans. According to Humphreys, archaeology is really just a way to help create peer support groups for veterans. “Digs are incredibly mission oriented and require a lot of teamwork,” says Humphreys. “Everyone is doing a different thing, but all those different jobs add up to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone is intensely focused on getting the job done. For veterans all this sounds familiar.”

Humphreys finds that a dig reminds veterans of their time in service. In fact, this is how it bridges the gap. It reminds disabled veterans of capabilities that they had but aren’t able to exercise now in the civilian world.  He says, “Despite the fact that they are disabled, we find people walk away saying 'I can do a lot more than I thought I could do before. I can still function. I can still contribute. I can still get the mission done. This is just a different thing that I’m doing to get the mission done.'”

A normal dig could cost you between $500 and $750 per week. “You’re paying a fair amount of money just to participate and haul dirt,” says Humphreys. “We’re allowing veterans to go out and do that for free.”  To join in one of AVAR’s digs, you just need to get yourself to the site, Humphreys and his team takes care of the rest.  He says, “Once you get to the site, we handle everything else – room, board – everything is free.”

The next excavation has been fully funded for 20 veterans by National Geographic. It takes place at Mount Lebanon near Albany, NY from May 22 to June 3. It’s the first systematic excavation of the largest and most important Shaker settlement in the country. The Shakers were a religious sect that came from England. This utopian and technologically-orientated society boomed and suddenly died out because they didn’t believe in sexual reproduction.

Photo by American Veterans Archaeology Recovery

This isn’t vocational training; two weeks at a site won’t prepare you for a career in archaeology. It could however, peak your interest. Commercial archaeologists, who normally work on military bases, are brought in to help veterans discover if this is something they’d like to continue doing. The training provided is very similar to a military training record. Veterans maintain an archaeology skills passport, and when they feel they are ready to upgrade, a site supervisor can sign off on the skill. 

“We found that it really helps our guys to feel responsible for their own progression,” Humphreys says, “We find it’s good for self-esteem.”

And then there’s the thrill of finding something that hasn’t been seen by human eyes for years, decades or even centuries.  

For more photos of veterans participating in digs with AVAR, click here.

Recently, Humphreys and his veterans were digging up a Roman fort in the UK. It was from the second or third century, but to get to it they had to dig through the remains of a WWII airbase. The 100th Air Refueling Wing – an American Air Force unit, also known as the Bloody Hundredth – flew over 300 missions from the site. They found dog tags and other personal items used by the air crew, mixed in with Roman coins. 

“We’re still trying to figure out why we found the dog tags where we found them,” recalls Humphreys. “Some were from people who were killed in action, some made it back home. When you find someone’s dog tags that died in combat 75 years ago, for veterans and active duty guys that really hit home. You can really attach the name and in some cases even the face of the individual to the item that you just picked up of the ground. No one has seen it in 75 years. That’s a cool feeling. That’s a sobering feeling.”

There are still spots open for the Shaker dig in New York State. The best way to get involved is through the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery Facebook page

“It may be a strange idea, saying that putting veterans on digs helps them,” says Humphreys. “We’ve already got the proof of concept and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that this actually works. Even if veterans don’t necessarily enjoy archaeology or even though about history before, just come out and work with veterans again.”

You’ll also be introduced to your new best friend, Mycobacterium vaccae.