“Combat boots to cowboy boots”


April 11th, 2011

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Petersburg, NE – Nearly half the men and women serving in the military come from rural areas, and the small towns, farms and ranches that they left behind would love to have them come back to work after their tour of duty.

Garrett Dwyer was one of the first to benefit from an idea that took root at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, the "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots" program.

During his tour of duty as a marine in Iraq, Garrett Dwyer thought a lot about coming back and taking over the family’s ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. These acres have been in his family for a century, nearly five generations. It’s a source of pride even if there is a lot less land and a lot less cattle.

“I don’t know if I am a dreamer,” he said, “but that would be a goal of mine to put this ranch back together to what it once was.”

Planning for that day is possible in part because of a unique program called “Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots.” It encourages men and women straight out of the military and often looking for jobs to take ownership of farms and ranches in Nebraska.

Dwyer says he hopes to put his family ranch back together to what it once was. "I don't know if I am a dreamer," he said.

“Why not bring them back into rural communities to either farming or ranching or even a Main Street business and get them up and going again and starting their own farms and ranches?” Dwyer asked.

Garrett Dwyer was one of the first to benefit from an idea that took root at the Nebraska College for Technical Agriculture. The dean, Weldon Sleight, saw an opportunity to attract new, motivated students to campus, while matching the college’s mission of rural economic development.

“We have a huge number of veterans returning every month,” Sleight said. “We’re sending some care packages to those who will soon be veterans, and in those care packages is a brochure about the Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots. And we’re going to get them here.”

This is not so much a new approach as a collection of existing programs and ideas. It’s a convenient package for veterans using GI Bill benefits to continue their education. The first step: classes in technical and business skills. Step two: low interest loans to buy a small herd of cattle.

“That’s collateral for me,” Dwyer said. You own your cows, your tractors. You own that. You go to the bank and you say I have this collateral, and say I want to buy a section of pasture now.”

Government statistics put the price of buying livestock and equipment for a new farm at just short of $1 million. That doesn’t even include a few million dollars more for land. Even for a young rancher with a family operation, that can be a real obstacle. Something Garrett Dwyer has seen too often.

“Their son’s been working on the place for 30 years… and he’s got nothing,” Dwyer said. “He’s got no land in his name. He’s got none of the cattle. He’s just working for his dad. He’s got nothing and no sense of ownership.”

Dwyer has a ranch to return to. Other veterans don’t have that link. So another important part of “Combat boots to Cowboy boots” pairs a soldier turned student with an established rancher. That rancher may be near retirement and is looking for someone to keep his operation running. If it works out they could form a business relationship that could lead too assuming control of the farm or ranch.

Getting out of his truck, Dwyer walks up to a small cabin he built near his family’s home. It’s his way of claiming a stake in history on his family’s ranch and creating a new life after his service in Iraq.

“For me, being in combat and everything, and coming back and transitioning, it’s almost therapeutic being here and doing my own thing and living where I want to live, and I’m enjoying every little bit of it.”

The numbers collected by the military show nearly half the people on active duty come from rural areas. The backers of “Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots” would like to bring as many of them back to land as possible.

For more on the Combat to Cowboy Boots program, go to netnebraska.org.

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