Too often, it is only in retrospect that we realize we are part of a team, unit or cast of characters all working toward an outcome with a singular vision.

I find myself blessed to realize my role in an amazing drama as it unfolds and perhaps nothing is more amazing than the cast of fellow characters sharing the stage and forcing me to take better action and utter better lines.

Colin Archipley—When you first meet Colin, you can’t help but wonder how a guy this tall was able to find cover in the intense fighting he waded through in the invasion of Iraq, the Battle of Fallujah and the intense fighting in Haditha. This blond-haired California native not only survived but rose to the rank of sergeant in less than four years. He is a natural leader who can think under stress and has the sort of charisma that is both innate and refined by hard-earned experience. First he joined the Corps in response to 9/11. The, after service, he trained himself to build greenhouses to help save his farm in northern San Diego County. Then he and his wife started a sustainable, organic agriculture training program and has helped more than 150 veterans start down the same path. And now I’ve dubbed him the Kale Hero. Not bad for just over 30 years of living.

Karen Archipley—You know what a farmer’s wife is like, right? Grey hair pulled back in a bun, dirty apron, rolling pin out and a pie in the window sill. Wrong. Karen is a former international fashion entrepreneur who can secure a six-figure deal with Whole Foods Market,  find a scholarship for a needy veteran and whip up a kale salad in about 10 minutes. Her deep passion for sustainable food growing practices fuels a motor that doesn’t seem to have much quit. With her husband Colin, she has helped change the face of agriculture and permanently scorched the stereotype of the “farmer’s wife.”

Maj. General Mel Spiese (USMC-Ret.)—It’s tough for a lifelong civilian to read the bio of a Marine Corps general and decipher exactly what all of the roles, assignments, honors and achievements mean. But a look at Mel’s work history—which started about six years after  I was born—reveals that many men and women were led as Marines and influenced by his wisdom, decisions and commitment to being the guy who takes responsibility for when things go right and wrong.  Take a second and truly contemplate what that means and you will certainly come away with an understanding of why I revere this man’s character and trust his guidance.

Filomena Spiese — One has to marvel at the balancing act that is the life of a general’s wife. The general often steals the show because of the stars on his collar, but a successful general’s wife is part debutante, part ninja and a full-on leader in her own rite. Filomena Spiese has the easy-going humor and wit of a fun-loving Northern Cali girl, but is a passionate and staunch allie to her major general husband. Her work in support of VSAT, including spearheading a non-profit that has helped raise funds for student tuition to the program, has been nothing short of amazing. When you hear someone say “Spiese is a good leader,” you should immediately ask, “Which one?”

“Forager” Mike Haines—A reconnaissance Marine and veteran of the invasion of Iraq. Mike is a relentless tinkerer and a mad scientist of an inventor. He has no interest in Lex Luther world domination. He wants to create food, housing and transportation systems that shatter the current economic paradigm and usher in a new form of prosperity for those willing to work for the greater good. While attending VSAT, Mike created Dang!!! Hot Sauce, a raw, organic superfood creation that tastes amazing and sets off symphony of healthy enzymes and positive vibrations as soon as it touches the tongue. Does he sound like a relic of Haight/Ashbury? Well, Mike is also trained to survive under the harshest conditions, loves to sleep in bushes and forage off the land, and can locate an enemy and dispatch with extreme prejudice. So you may want to keep those hippie jokes to yourself.

Jon and Tony Smalls—Somewhere back during the Civil War, one of Jon’s ancestors stole a Confederate ship. Not a horse. Not a cannon. An entire ship. I would tell you how he did it—and then went on to become the first black congressman from South Carolina—but I was too busy feeding my face with the sweet potato pie made by Jon and his brother Tony to get all the details. Jon served in combat as a Marine. Tony is an Army veteran. Both are VSAT grads. And the two natives of South Carolina’s “Lowcountry” have a magical sweet potato pie recipe that has been a family secret for well over a century. These two pie-men are gearing up for a run in Whole Foods Market and I can assure you they will commandeer America’s taste buds like their ancestor commandeered enemy ships.

Jerome Yoskovitis—Southern California is home to the nation’s highest per capita population of laid-back dudes with blonde ponytails. Jerome is one of these dudes. But this ultra-mellow man is no Spicolli. He is a Marine veteran of both combat and humanitarian missions around the globe. To cope with the horrors of war and the difficulties of transition into the civilian world after his service, he started growing tomatoes as therapy. The plan worked…too well. He had tons of extra tomatoes. So, after going through VSAT, Jerome came up with an organic, heirloom tomato variety ketchup. It’s called Kaught Up because it’s the only brand that has caught up to the idea that folks don’t want high fructose corn syrup and GMO crap on their French fries.

Rob Lewis—He loves Crossfit, beekeeping, jujitsu and permaculture. He “contains multitudes,” as Walt Whitman might have said. Need a mushroom identified? He’s your guy. Want to go for a run and plan a strategy for setting up a farm in some faraway city? He’s also your guy. Video edited? Story written? Celebrity endorsement secured? He’s your guy. As a journalist/public affairs guru in the Marine Corps, Rob was forced to be a master of many trades. And thankfully he has gathered some great stories along the way to pick you up when you are ready to crash. He was once threatened by a heavyweight champion boxer and introduced to natives of a southern Pacific island who worshipped the Marine Corps…all in one week. Spend a week with him and you’ll have some stories of your own.

Ryan McGill—Ever seen a CH-46? Here is a picture of one. As a Marine, Ryan flew one of these helicopters in combat in Iraq, transporting both warfighters to and from battle and wounded comrades to needed medical treatment. This was after an enlistment in the Navy as a diver. Now he will grow food in the city of Boston, running his own organic, hydroponic greenhouse in Beantown. The city is known for toughness, patriotism and grit. Captain McGill is too.

Not a bad bunch, right? And I’m blessed to be working this cast of VSAT-centered characters to discover more players every day.

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