Nick Lemley stands near his pigs during an interview Thursday. Lemley went home to Ringgold, Ga., to the family farm after serving with the Marines in Afghanistan. He organically raises cattle, pigs, and sheep to sell at farmers markets, and hopes to turn the farm into a job training facility for handicapped veterans.
CATOOSA COUNTY, Ga. — When Nick and Hannah Lemley ate at restaurants early in their marriage, he always kept his back to the wall.
"He'd want to sit in the corner where he could watch everybody and everything," she remembers.
Two tours of duty as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan left Lemley with social anxiety disorder. His expeditionary unit kept a wary eye for attackers as they built radio towers on the front lines by day and slept underneath trucks at night, far from the relative safety of military bases.
"I've seen plenty," Lemley said. "It really bothers me going into a large crowd. I want to know where my rifle's at."
Now Lemley receives therapy on Sundays when he sets up a booth at the Chattanooga Market and sells free-range, hormone-free pork, beef and lamb from animals he raises at Devil Dawg Farms, 110 acres of hilly pasture and woods near Ringgold.
"Working markets forces me to go into crowds," said Lemley, who also worked Saturdays this summer at Ringgold's new farmers' market. "It forces you to come out of your shell."
Lemley has learned what hundreds of other veterans across the nation have — there's therapy, peace and maybe even a livelihood in farming.
He's one of 700 farmers in 47 states who belong to the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, a Davis, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that helps returning veterans find careers in agriculture.
"Our vision is pretty simple: We [encourage] veterans to feed America," said Sasha Klein, who coordinates the group's small grants program.
Other services include helping vets find jobs and internships, promoting farmers through its website and social media sites and offering informal consulting from the three farmers on staff.
Lemley is impressed by the group's work, such as helping a Massachusetts veteran who lost limbs in battle start a business making maple syrup.
"This guy is out there with two false legs and one arm ... working maple sugar trees," he said.
Lemley, who still has all his limbs, plans to build wheelchair-accessible farrowing and lambing houses at Devil Dawg Farms so other veterans can come and find peace and healing from the wounds of war as he has.
Away from the farmers' market crowds, Lemley finds a quieter form of therapy working his land.
It's home. Aside from six years in the Marines, Lemley, 28, has lived his entire life on 24 acres in Catoosa County that his grandparents bought in 1984.
He grew up helping his grandfather, Huston Black, raise beef cattle.
It was sort of an after-work hobby for Black, who was raised on a cotton farm, got a master's degree in psychology and worked for years at the Catoosa County School District, where his positions included principal of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School and heading up the district's maintenance department.
Now Lemley wants to pass the love of farming on to his sons -- Mason, 4, Waylon, 3, and Huston, an infant.
The farm is a family compound. Lemley's mother and grandmother live in an apartment and a house there.
In a humorous nod to Hannah's side of the family, the couple named their first three brood sows after Hannah and her two sisters: Christina and Mollie. Hannah Jr. and Mollie Jr. were too mean, so they got eaten.
But Christina Junior, or C.J., is still birthing litters of pigs after Nick helped her survive a bout of wintertime pneumonia "by wrapping a blanket on her and strapping it on with bungee cords," Hannah said.
Lemley's love for the Marines shows up in everything from the Corps flag hanging from his front porch to choosing the Marines nickname, Devil Dawg, for his business.
However, because Lemley grew up eating cattle his grandfather raised and produce from the family garden, he wasn't crazy about the Corps' food. He remembers training in Bridgeport, Calif., and getting ready for his first hot meal in two months. Then he saw what was written on the box of meat.
"For prison or military use only," Lemley remembers, shaking his head.
He hopes to travel to Europe to intern for two weeks with a German butcher, then spend a week learning in the Czech Republic. One day, Lemley would like to open a meat shop in downtown Ringgold.
Despite his love for it now, Lemley didn't spend his years in the Marine Corps dreaming of returning to the farm.
"No. I was dreaming about beer and women," he said. "Farming definitely wasn't on the brain."
But, he said, "Once I got back into it, I realized how peaceful it was."
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.