by Jeremy Idleman, Executive Director of Bee Found
When I tell people that I'm a beekeeper, the most common question I get is, "How did you get involved in beekeeping?" After telling people the shortened version over and over and over again, I decided to write this blog to fully explain the origin of Bee Found and how I became a beekeeper. It's a bit long, but it does give the full explanation of the foundation of Bee Found's mission.
But first, I'd like to note that this is a personal story; one that I've told very few people. The fist time my wife was told this, was when she was proofreading this blog. I've debated (with myself) of whether I should share this or not, and in the end I realized that this story needs to be told, because it's the whole reason that Bee Found exists.
In November 2003, I was notified that my National Guard unit, the 1140th Engineer Battalion, would be getting activated to Iraq in January, not two months from then. My girlfriend at the time, let's call her Susan, didn't take the announcement well. We were both scared, frustrated and uncertain of our future. Regardless, we decided to stay together throughout the deployment.
The deployment, due to everything that I witnessed and was required to do to fulfill mission requirements, left me a bit jaded with our then political leadership. Susan and I were already skeptical about the reasoning behind going to Iraq, and my experience while there only strengthened my resolve against those who would send us to war for, what I thought, "no good reason at all". On my downtime, when I wasn't calling home or dominating my fellow Soldiers in Halo, I was reading voraciously; some political history, current events, biographies, but mostly sci-fi to escape the reality around me.
For the most part, it wasn't that bad; I had great comrades who were going through the same hell I was, I had video games and books, and the missions were (mostly) monotonous, which was a good thing. But there were a few instances that I had a hard time dealing with, and in a way, I'm still dealing with.
What I'm about to write here, I haven't fully told anyone. Not Susan after it happened, not my wife, and not even my siblings or friends.
The first really hard day on all of us, was around July of 2004. We were patrolling, like we normally did on every mission. Most every day, I was the driver for the rear vehicle but this day, I was driving the lead vehicle. I had my headphones in listening to Wilco's recently released album, "A Ghost Is Born" on my 2nd generation iPod. (That album saved my sanity that deployment!). I hear the squelch on the radio, and pulled my headphones out to listen. A fuel tanker had to be abandoned on our route and we had to investigate. Upon arrival, there were several locals surrounding the tanker siphoning off the remnants of the fuel in plastic jugs, large cups and even plastic bags. We scared them off and my Lieutenant determined that we had to blow it up to keep the locals safe, just in case it blew while they were surrounding it. Good news!! We get to blow something up!! Excited, we draw back about 100 meters and the .50 cal gunner was ordered to shoot. After SEVERAL rounds, nothing happened. So then the LT ordered our Mark 19, an automatic grenade launcher, to shoot it. After a few rounds, nothing happened. It was determined that there wasn't enough fuel left to be of any danger, so we radioed it in, requesting a wrecker to come drag it off the road, and we headed back to our base.
About twenty minutes later, I hear the squelch on the radio again. My squad leader informs me that there was an explosion north of our position and we had to go investigate. We all knew what had happened. Upon arrival, the tanker is in flames and there were bodies scattered about on the ground, some about 30 meters from where the tanker was. As I was a Combat Lifesaver (not a medic, but better trained in first aid than the average Soldier), I grabbed my bag and ran to the first victim nearest me. But it wasn't a man as I had thought, it was a kid, maybe 14 years old. I begin going through the motions of evaluating him as he's clearly in shock. The first thing I noticed was that he was no longer brown-skinned, but white. The heat from the explosion had caused his skin to peel back in several places, but especially his arms, much like you have to peel back a rubber glove after doing the dishes, and they turn inside-out, that's what looked like happened here. A sense of panic washes over me as I don't know if I can save him. As I was having a hard time finding a vein to inject the needle for the saline bag, I hear someone call in a MEDEVAC request on the radio behind me. I suddenly remember why I can't find a vein; when there's a flash heat, your veins will actually draw deeper inside to protect them. Since I couldn't find any veins on either arm, I moved away the already peeled skin away from his hands and found one I could work with. I installed the drip, told someone to hold it up and moved on to the next victim. As I was bandaging open wounds on the second guy, I hear the helicopters come in. We assist the medics with getting everyone on board and once the helos depart, we watch as shocked kids walk away from the scene, dazed with what they had just witnessed.
Guilt-ridden, we drove back to base. Once there, we learned that two of the kids did not survive and died either on the ride to, or at the hospital. We all felt like it was our fault but realized we were following orders by trying to make it more safe. In the end, we made it more dangerous and cost two kids their lives.
The second incident happened not two weeks later. We again get a call about an explosion north of us on the Main Supply Route (MSR) that we patrolled daily. Upon arrival, we see two tractor trailer trucks on their sides, burned out. A few meters from the trucks are four Humvees, also burned out. Surrounding all of them, were mainly kids but a few adults too. We had some of the local Iraqi Police with us that day so they helped to scatter the locals that were trying to scavenge any parts they could get off. We set up a perimeter to keep people away and then assess the site. There were two victims of a coordinated IED that had been caught in the cabs of trucks as the flames overtook them.
Fortunately, the Iraqi Police had recovered one of the bodies and put it in the back of one of their trucks. The other body was stuck inside the overturned cab. Two of the police where trying, in vain, to push/pull/pry the body out with a shovel. As I watched (what I deemed to be further desecration of human remains) in disgust, anger flooded over me. I grabbed a pair of concertina gloves (gloves designed to handle razor wire) and stormed over to the cab. I squeezed myself through the blown out window and bent down to pick up the charred and bloody torso. There was no head, arms or legs. As I held my breath and heaved it up, struggling with the weight and the limitations of the size of the cab, I was forced to take a breath. What I smelled was horrifying; not because it smelled bad, but because it smelled delicious; like a steak you would pull off of your grill. As tears came down my face, I carried the torso over to the truck and placed him in the bed, covering it with a blanket that was already over the one.
When talking with Susan that night, all I could tell her that I had a "really bad day". She begged me to tell her what happened, but I couldn't. I didn't want her to know what I was going through not because she couldn't handle it, but because I couldn't handle her knowing, and I didn't want her to feel sorry for me.
After that, my anger blossomed into hatred for our entire political system because they would never know, or care, what had happened to just one Soldier, let alone all the others who have seen and have done much worse things than my platoon did. And because of that anger and mistrust I developed for everyone, Susan and I didn't work out. When I returned and we moved in together, I was a very different person. We went to counseling together but I had a hard time reconciling the past year with the present. Susan tried very hard; I didn't (or want to) try hard enough simply because I felt cornered and pushed into talking about something I didn't want to.
In the end, Susan and I went our separate ways; I moved to San Jose, California where one of my sisters lived and got a job teaching P.E. to 4th-8th grades at a private school. It turns out that moving to California with my best friend (doggo Maddy), was the best therapy for me. I got to enjoy mother nature, think things through on my own terms, have a great job, and make new friends whom I didn't have reminding me of how angry I am, because I no longer was. The only thing it cost me was a partner.
One day, when I had returned home to Missouri to visit, I was visiting with my uncle, who has been a beekeeper since he was twelve. I had always been fascinated by bees, but never had the opportunity to actually keep any as I was either in school, deployed, or moving around. He LOVES talking about bees! We were talking one day and I nonchalantly told him about the anger issues I was overcoming and how I realized that what I in fact had, was PTSD. He paused thoughtfully, and said, "Well have you ever thought about beekeeping?" I looked at him incredulously and just said, "WHAT!?".
As he told me about the numerous benefits of bees, the primary one being therapeutic, I became even more intrigued. Due to my living situation, I couldn't start keeping bees at that time. But I began a multi-year long research project into bees, their benefits and why we need them.
It wasn't until after I got married to my wonderful (and very tolerant) wife, Jessica, that I started keeping bees. She puts up with my beekeeping shenanigans and I now believe that behind every beekeeper, there's a partner who supports and tolerates them. When I told Jessica that I wanted to start a beekeeping nonprofit, the first thing she said was, "No bees at the house." But that's a story for another time!
Once I actually started beekeeping, I knew exactly what my uncle had told me all those years prior. I even developed a mobile office so I can go out and sit with the bees while I work. I knew I had something and I wanted to share it with others like me. Knowing the benefits of just being around bees, I knew what I had to do. So I launched Bee Found with the main mission to give free hives, colonies, mentorship and supplies to veterans living with PTSD. This program is called Wings for Warriors and will teach veterans how to keep bees, how to catch free and feral bees, and how to sustainably grow their apiary (should they want that) to turn them into life-long hobbyists.
It's important to note that we don't only help veterans get started in beekeeping. We also offer hive rentals, hive hosting, classes and mentorship to any new beekeeper! To learn more about these programs, or if you're an experienced beekeeper and would like to mentor one of these veterans, email Jeremy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the beginning, there was anger. Today, there is happiness, joy and love, not just for the bees,
but for everyone around me. There are many organizations that offer to help veterans with PTSD through counseling, financial aid, medicine and support, but there are very few organizations that aim to repair the soul of a person. Bee Found aims to do just that.
If you would like to donate to Bee Found to help give these Veterans a chance to get well, please visit our Donation Page for more information.