ROBINSON, N.D. — Brad Hoff went back to school to be a physician assistant in 2008, and he knew he wanted to focus on rural medicine. His mom had cancer at the time, so he chose to take a job in Carrington, about 35 miles from his family’s farm north of Robinson.
In Carrington, he trained under Dr. Todd Schaffer, who sold Hoff on joining the North Dakota National Guard. So, that year, Hoff joined up. Now a major and part of the state’s medical detachment, he’s had an array of experiences in the Guard, from medical missions and a deployment to Afghanistan to becoming a flight surgeon.
“It’s been a good career,” he said, sitting in his parents’ basement on the farm. “I think it’s going to be a lot longer career.”
“In all honesty, farming has been a big stress reliever for me,” he said. “It’s been an opportunity to come back to where I was raised and what I know. And it gives me the opportunity to kind of step away from medicine, to step away from the day-to-day hustle.”
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were 370,619 farmer-veterans nationwide in 2017. Percentage-wise, that means 11% of all farmers are also veterans, ahead of the 7% of the general population that have served in the military.
“That’s the history, and the long history, in America,” he said. “We were founded by Washington and Jefferson and farmers that were also soldiers, defenders for the country.”
'You don’t need vacations'
Hoff went to college at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., for radiologic technology and then worked at what was then called Meritcare in Fargo, N.D., until he went back to school to be a physician assistant in 2008.
The National Guard hadn’t been on his radar until Schaffer talked to him about programs to pay for his education and ways to expand and experience new things. Hoff joined on “active duty for special work,” a designation for service members completing their education, and then direct commissioned into the Guard as a second lieutenant after he completed his schooling.
On medical missions to Ghana, Hoff has been part of a team that trains medics in the National Guard’s sister state and cares for civilians, including attending to 1,100 patients in a three-day period.
In recent years, Hoff has become a flight surgeon, which means he takes care of pilots and makes sure their health is "perfect." That coincides with his personal interest in flying; he got his private pilot's license shortly before his deployment. He said he enjoys the opportunities the Guard has provided to continue learning. The next challenge he plans to take on is to go to air assault school.
His job in Carrington, he said, is “pretty consistent every day.” It consists of hospital rounds, followed by clinic and covering the emergency room with three other providers. COVID-19 has added some difficulties, with regular complications of trying to find bed placements at larger hospitals for people who need care and trying to cover more ground for the sometimes short-handed facilities.
“With everything going on, it is a lot more stress right now,” he said.
Keeping the farm going for another generation also is important to Hoff, who relishes the time he spends with his father.
“I know it means the world to him,” he said.
Hoff also enjoys the change of pace that farm work gives him. It’s not that it’s easy work, he said, but that it’s just “different than any other profession.” The hard, physical work provides a kind of getaway for him.
“It’s weird how you don’t need vacations when you’re on a farm,” Hoff said.
'A healing transition'
That doesn’t surprise O’Gorman, who finds that the sense of purpose in agriculture meets up with the sense of purpose many feel in serving in the military.
“It's that sense of purpose, that sense of mission, that people are finding in agriculture. People need food,” he said. “Our ability to feed our country is a national security issue.”
Add to that the responsibility of caring for land, the environment and other people, and it’s an occupation that provides a “healing transition into civilian life,” O’Gorman said.
O’Gorman had a career in agriculture for nearly four decades, running a large-scale organic produce farm. He never served in the military. But on Sept. 11, 2001, his daughter was a witness to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. O’Gorman was in Mexico at the time and had a difficult time getting back home to his family in California. And by the time he got there, his son was in uniform, having joined up after the attacks.
A program O’Gorman is especially excited about is the Homegrown by Heroes label. The program started in Kentucky, with the intention of giving farmer veterans special recognition in the marketplace. The Farmer Veteran Coalition has worked with Kentucky to spread the program in all 50 states.
Along with those programs, the coalition also works with partners like Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, Farm Credit, AgrAbility and others to help provide resources and programs to farmer veterans. The coalition has chapters in numerous states and welcomes membership of veterans or active military members. Its annual conference, to be held virtually this year, is scheduled for Nov. 18-19. For more information, visit https://conference.farmvetco.org/schedule.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has several programs for veterans, including hiring programs, educational programs and entrepreneurship resources. For more information, visit https://www.usda.gov/our-agency/initiatives/veterans.