From war to plow: A Ranger’s transition
In my work within the veteran community, I have been blessed to get to know many members of the U.S. Army Ranger community, including James Webb. As those connected to the military are acutely aware, transitioning from an active, fulfilled military career into the civilian world, where the lines aren’t as clear between good and evil, love and hate, brother and enemy, can be difficult and overwhelming even for the strongest among us.
Webb’s story is a success story. Survival is a recurrent theme in Webb’s life, and though he has been knocked down time after time, he strives to make his life matter, to live the Ranger creed every day, and to make a difference for him, his son and the men, who he calls brothers. This is his story.
The mountains and the land of our founding father’s defined James Webb’s life from the very beginning. Born in Madison, Va., in what he calls his own piece of “heaven on earth,” he dreamed of becoming an Army soldier as a kid, following the Webb family legacy.
He grew up swimming in the river, raising cattle on the family farm, becoming a handyman with his father, playing football, running track, wrestling and exploring the magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2005, Webb enlisted into the U.S. Army and in 2006, he graduated from the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP.)
RIP was an intense three-week course to test, train and push prospective Rangers to their physical and mental limits. The goal was to determine suitability in the Ranger Regiment. Events included the PT test, the Combat Water Survival Test, 5-mile run, 6-mile ruck march, 12-mile ruck march, land navigation, medical training, fast roping, parachuting, and much more, as well as the mandatory smoke sessions in between. This program was designed to separate the boys from the men. It is now called the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) and five weeks were added to the training session.
In his career, Webb led a small cannon team equipped with a 60 millimeter mortar, assisted by sniper security, and working with the multi-purpose canines (MPCs) with the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, B-CO and D-CO.
“I was happy to be a Ranger. I belonged there, ridding evil off the Earth,” he said. “I had a group of guys willing to fight and die with me. I had never and probably will never feel such a good feeling as when you all make it back and head to chow and start bulls….g,” Webb said.
In January of 2009, Webb was riding his motorcycle along the outskirts of Columbus, Ga., and out of nowhere, was struck by a drunk driver going 50 mph. In the passing of a few seconds, his life would change drastically..
After being struck, Webb remembered many cars passing him, driving inches from his head. While the people in those cars sped past, Webb lay on the cold asphalt with his right leg smashed into several pieces. His pelvis had been pulled apart like a wish bone, he had three compound fractures, his tibia and fibula were sticking out of his skin in two different spots with his heel facing upside down along with hematomas of the liver and the right kidney. He vividly remembers that his femur was sticking out of his jeans. He suffered multiple fractures in his right hand, and was bleeding profusely, so much so that he remembers seeing a 4-foot radius of blood circling him.
At first, the doctors advised that his leg be amputated above his right knee. But Webb pleaded and ultimately insisted that they put his leg back together. Although the doctors continued to be skeptical, over the next two years, Webb underwent nine surgeries to rebuild his body. With each surgery came another recovery, and the need to rebuild his muscles from that down time through countless therapy sessions.
Webb’s noble and honorable career in the 75th Ranger Regiment came to a close the day he was hit by the drunk driver. While he lay in his hospital bed, he reflected on the times, when he had fought valiantly against the evil in this world. He thought of the many lives he had saved and been changed by during his time as a team leader serving alongside the nation’s elite.
Throughout the seemingly never-ending surgeries and countless doctors’ visits, Webb knew that he needed to keep his mind busy realizing that he was no longer overseas with his brothers.
“Finding something else that I love to do every day and something that makes me still feel like a man was really important when I started my post-military life,” Webb said.
FARMER AT HEART
Since that time in the hospital, Webb dedicated his life to farming at the base of his beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. The Ranger Regiment isn’t for the faint of heart and neither is farming. He agreed on a plan with his family to take over the farm with the settlement from the accident and his military retirement. Webb replaced the fencing, built two equipment sheds, a whole new 40×60-foot shop with concrete floors and a lift, a 40×60-foot pole barn for hay storage, updated the house, as well as, clearing the land to make it profitable.
He also purchased four hunter jumper horses and worked with professional horse trainer, Chad Keenum, president of CK Sport Horse Sales, LLC. Webb and Keenum have won several titles including taking second in the 100,000 HITS Derby with High Five and Tara Metzner.
“I tried stock markets out and lost a pile of money because of what people think, at least with the horses I feel like it’s more in God’s hands,” Webb said. “Every one of them (horses) is a genetic miracle and the only one like it, so each one is special. You can’t make them in a factory like an iPhone or a car, it has to be born. That to me has more soul in it than standard investment practices, plus it’s competitive. Ever since my trainer and I partnered up, he’s been in the top ten and I want to be part of his success when he becomes the best in the world. Horses and cattle, livestock instead of dead stock, feels more American than working at a random company making plastic wrappers for pills or something.”
To this day, Webb has been learning from the best farmers in Madison County, father and son operaters, Axsel and David Falk and EJ and Brent Aylor. Webb spent the first year sitting shotgun in their John Deere tractors, learning the trade and creating a reputable name for himself in the community, which can prove to be difficult in a small town, especially as a veteran.
Webb is truly humbled to farm alongside such hardworking and brilliant men.
“Finding civilians who work just as hard to provide for their future was something I didn’t think really existed in this day and age. I was wrong and have found brotherhood outside of the regiment,” Webb said.
A DYING BREED
The average American farmer is 58 years old, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Farmers over age 55 control more than half of the country’s farmland, and one in two is likely to retire in the next decade. Since 1987, there has been a decline in the number of new farmers joining the ranks. Only 17 percent are beginning farming careers — with less than a decade of experience.
“When you look at the population growth, we’re naturally going to need more and more producers to keep pace with the growing demand,” said Karis Gutter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first military veterans’ agriculture liaison. “The veterans’ cadre looks very promising for us.”
This was exciting for Webb. Civilian life had turned around for him. However, life has its hurdles as you transition out of the military and problems started spilling into Webb’s quiet world.
At this point for Webb, it seemed to be one thing after another. He was losing buddies overseas, losing a few to suicide and his relationship with his family was deteriorating.
After Webb completed all the improvements to the family farm, his parents decided to go back on their agreement, retire from their jobs, run the farm and kick Webb off the property. They have yet to pay their son back for everything he’s invested into the farm. Webb said they even threatened to call the Veteran’s Administration on him because of personal differences of opinion. Unfortunately, these kind of lash outs and using a soldiers service against them happens all too often within the military community and their “families.”
Webb and his roommate, both medically retired Rangers, had to move in the middle of Virginia’s harsh winter. This included all their animals, the farming equipment and the house. They lost so much. Although it seemed nearly impossible to find somewhere to lease with all their animals, they found a house to rent through the end of March in 2017. Finally, they thought they could relax.
While dealing with all the stress of his family situation, Webb began a relationship with a local girl. He felt some sense of normalcy and a place of refuge within this young relationship. Then, in the spring of 2015, Webb received the news that he was going to be a father.
“As a Ranger, becoming a father is profound because you are not only molding a young man, but your own son,” Webb said. “All the pain and hardship can now be considered worth it because I have something to teach my son; life experience. For example, every time it rains, I must cut a tree off the fence, or I have to check for calves when I’m already tired as hell from tossing square bales, it’s me looking out for my little ranger buddy and to have something I can leave him. He has helped me remember the laughter and happiness of youth, something that gets taken away by the raw reality of a traumatic injury or service in an Army at war … in the most bloodied unit in the military. I wanted to leave him a choice to either live off the land or go into a different career. In a few more years, there won’t be an option for younger generations to buy their way into farming, so it’s important for me to make it, in order for my son to be able to even have the option of a life like mine,” Webb said.
Webb and his now ex-girlfriend still work together raising their son. It has not been easy for Webb, and he will say that it’s probably the hardest thing that he’s had to face because he doesn’t want to miss anything his son does, but he is keeping his eye on his son’s future and knows every minute with him is a gift.
Webb has learned over the years and particularly through this relationship that many women enjoy the idea of being with a man in uniform, but not many want to deal with the reality of one.
Now, fast-forward to the middle of 2016 and the landlords of the rental house decided to sell their place in the middle of summer. So, there they were, two Ranger buddies, their horses, dogs and cats were soon to be homeless. At this point, Webb decided to utilize the acreage he had purchased from his parents and has created their own little Ranger paradise, or FOB Jamestown, as they now call it. Every morning, Webb wakes up to the beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and his horses ready to eat breakfast.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Transitioning into the civilian world after a rewarding career in the military is difficult. Webb faced this, though it wasn’t of his choosing. He left the military injured and not ready to face a new civilian lifestyle while the war was still going on. From his experiences, Webb believes that every veteran should take six months to a full year off after getting out of the military to decompress and re-engage the civilian world. He’s had numerous buddies come to the ranch to wind down, do some work, get in the saddle and get their life in check.
The ranch is a steadily growing operation in the mountains of Virginia. Webb is not only connecting the land of our founding fathers and the Nation’s finest warriors, but he is actively bridging the civilian-gap to provide the United States and the world more food. Can it get more American than that?
“I feel independent and not reliant on the human machine,” Webb said. “I had a lot of anxiety after being hurt about being able to take care of myself. I used to jump out of planes and walk 30 miles, now I can’t walk a mile. So, having a horse to carry me through the mountains and being able to make money on my own and doing it based on weather (or circumstances out of his control) is a lot easier to handle to me. I have a calf and that’s a new animal that wasn’t there before, I created something. I go out to a patch of dirt, grow some grass, and bale it up, bring it over to another patch of dirt with grass and give it to my cows and every year I have more and more,” Webb said. “I make food now, so I’m still one of the pillars of society and feel like I’m helping America, just in a different way. I’m up to 82 head now and steadily growing.”
Webb is expanding his operation so that his brothers can come and work for a summer in between contracting or going to school. He will eventually build another big barn to store his John Deere equipment and hay. He will have six hack horses and a log cabin built by his own hands with a fire pit so his buddies can sit and tell their stories in all their glory. You can read more about Webb and Conway Cattle Company on Facebook and Instagram.
Webb’s tenacity to make a positive change in his communities, both in Madison and in the brotherhood, and his commitment to the preservation of that sacred American land are inspiring and admirable. He is a true example of living the Ranger Creed. Rangers lead the way. ❖