Once a homeless addict, Army Ranger Michael Rivers is using a million-person Facebook group and a rural farm to change the way we think about vets.
The Dysfunctional Veteran podcast isn’t for everyone, but then again, it doesn’t try to be. The podcast is full of complaints about “POGs,” or Persons Other than Grunts – that’s non-trigger pullers, ROTC cadets, and various other forms of “pussies” and non-hackers. Wednesday nights are for “disgruntled discussions,” and they speak with uninhibited, crass vulgarity of the military. “Fucking” and “Gay” are favored descriptors.
To a civilian, the talk is borderline incomprehensible. It’s heavy on jargon and the minutiae of life in the Army. But for a veteran, it’s easy to listen and briefly imagine that you’re back in uniform, bullshitting with your buddies out by the smoke pit. That’s true for everything else at Dysfunctional Veterans. There are podcasts, a Facebook page with over a million followers, and message boards all devoted to bringing veterans together to hang out and talk.
The website doesn’t hesitate to play up the “Dysfunctional” aspect of the organization. There are parental advisory labels, an advertisement for a “Rant Hotline,” and the “I” in Dysfunctional Veterans Radio is a rifle, barrel up, firing signal waves. Mugs reading, “Does Not Play Well With Civilians,” and shirts displaying weapons and the phrase “Ask Not Who Your Country Can Kill For You; Ask Who You Can Kill For Your Country,” are for sale. That aesthetic is pure Michael Rivers. The company’s founder says part of helping veterans adjust to civilian life is giving them a space free of judgment from those who have never served.
Rivers is a former Army Ranger who lives in New Hampshire, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Craig, only stockier and usually wearing carpenter jeans. His curt sentences carry a distinctive Boston accent. He maintains a high-and-tight haircut, like the Rangers did in his day. His worldview is still that of the non-commissioned officer – anyone who isn’t an NCO falls somewhere on the spectrum of being a fucking idiot.
“You know, when I was in the Army, I never did drugs. I never even smoked cigarettes,” Rivers says while chain smoking. “But I tried a little pot like an hour after I got discharged, and then kept going from there. I tried everything, all the way to crack.”
In between stints in more than one Massachusetts jail, Rivers drifted between couches, a doorway, and eventually a subway tunnel while working odd jobs around Boston to support his addictions. He put in so many stints at a detox center near Malden that they knew him by name.
“I used to have five things I’d do everyday on the streets,” Rivers says. “Get my money, get my booze, get my drugs, do one good deed, and get in a fight.”
In 2007, a caseworker with the Veteran’s Administration put Rivers in touch with a program called Veteran Homestead in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. Here, the veterans were expected to tend to an 82-acre plot and work with horses as a form of animal therapy. In their downtime, they would receive treatment for substance abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“That farm put me to work just like the Army did,” says Rivers.
After three years on the farm as a patient and peer counselor, Rivers started the Dysfunctional Veterans website. It quickly gained popularity and within four years Rivers was able to take some of his profits and place a down payment on a farm of his own in Gilsum, New Hampshire. Now, relying on a GoFundMe page, Rivers houses and cares for up to five veterans at a time in much the same way as he was cared for before, although perhaps with a bit of a rougher edge.
Rivers shows me the applications he receives from around the country. Not many who apply are accepted, and Rivers is looking for a specific kind of person he can help. He will only accept people who have flunked out of at least one other drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. If they can pay for their travel to New Hampshire and there is an open bunk, they can work the farm, spend time with the therapy animals, and bond with each other to get sober. It’s an amalgamation of what Rivers learned in therapy and what he learned on the street.
“When you relapse at another place, they just treat you like a piece of shit. Here, I’m hard on them, but I give them enough rope to hang themselves.”
There are times, Rivers thinks, when a professional therapist is less effective than peer-to-peer interactions with fellow veterans. In Rivers’ mind, the mentality here is similar to combat. Getting back in touch with that culture and the mindset they had while immersed in it is the best cure of all.
That attitude is fairly common over on the Dysfunctional Veterans message boards. An enlistment becomes the paradigm around which everything else revolves. The volunteer military of the War on Terror is, culturally, different from that of Vietnam, Korea, or World War II. As with any “in-group” organization, it breeds a strong culture that brands outsiders as the “other.” For an increasing number of veterans, that doesn’t stop when they become civilians, nor does the malaise – the loss of purpose and connection to the bonds that deployments can create amongst soldiers.
After the Civil War, doctors called it “nostalgia.” They diagnosed men with restlessness, a sense of homesickness, and the inability to function under normal conditions. They were addicted to morphine and drink, and they drifted west. Thousands spent the latter half of the 19th century in state hospitals, declared insane because of nightmares and abusive behavior towards others.
After WWI, British war poets like Robert Graves spoke of “translating everything into trench warfare terms.” Thirty years after that, thousands of men returned from WWII with a wild, temperamental streak. Motorcycle gangs like the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington, the Market Street Commandos, and the Hells Angels sprung up, filled with men who weren’t ready to settle down.
There was an undercurrent of the distressed veteran in media at this time. The film “The Best Years of Our Lives” opens with the families of returning veterans being scared and disappointed by their desire to drink and stay out all night, celebrating the fact that they survived. Marlon Brando’s breakout role in “The Wild One” was a dramatization of a 1947 riot by veterans’ outlaw-biker gangs in Hollister, California.
After Vietnam, there was the enduring iconography of the Vietnam veteran as a damaged, drug-addled individual. Think Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter” holding a pistol to his red bandana-clad head, unable to forget his war.
In the 1980s that started to change. Out of the ashes of Vietnam, the all-volunteer military rebuilt and rebranded itself under the banner of the “Profession of Arms.” Gone were the days of the citizen soldiers or the draftees; they were replaced with an ethos. A veteran was no longer a bum, and the military was an honorable profession. From that came a generation of soldiers who believed not only in whatever mission was given to them, but their lifestyle. For many today, that lifestyle doesn’t always end with a pat on the back and a set of discharge papers.
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The Dysfunctional Veterans site is as big as ever, but these days Michael Rivers devotes most of his time to the DV Farm. It’s a 40-acre plot, most of it forested and unimproved. There are two cabins, an old barn, and a couple of equipment sheds. Rivers lives with his wife in one cabin, and the vets live in the other. In the vet’s cabin there is a set of house rules pinned near the doorway. Mark your groceries, clean up your dishes, no excess noise after 2300, and Red Sox games take priority on the TV. Upstairs there are shared bedrooms, and they are kept neat, like barracks rooms that could be inspected at any time.
Currently, there are four vets at the farm. They’ve been there for varying amounts of time. A year, a few months, one only showed up a couple of weeks ago. They are allowed to stay for as long as they think is necessary, and as long as Rivers feels they are making progress.
It’s still a somewhat haphazard operation, and like homesteaders the vets are taking this unused land and making it livable. They’ve repainted their cabin, cleared out the underbrush, and expanded the small pond where they keep ducks. Behind the vet cabin, there are two alpacas and three goats in a small enclosure.
As often as Rivers says he hates people, his eyes light up around animals. He’s got a parrot at home, the ducks in the pond, chickens to go along with the goats and alpacas, and a rescued Collie named Scout. Everyone is affectionate with the animals, tussling with Scout and fawning over the chicks and ducklings. Rivers even keeps an incubator in his basement where the eggs can hatch.
The day starts at nine a.m. with a group meeting on the porch of the vet cabin. Rivers walks up and shouts out with his sergeant’s cadence as the four vets assemble, sipping coffee and tussling with Scout. The vets are still a little groggy, ambling out of the house. They wear scuffed work boots, baggy jeans, t-shirts and trucker hats. Everyone is smoking their first cigarette of the day, pulling out their first lip of chewing tobacco. Rivers goes over the schedule: VA appointments, family visits, what needs to be done on the farm. Today’s project is expanding the electrified fence that keeps in the animals.
Perhaps it’s a remnant of their military training, but the vets respond to hard work. There is a task that needs to be accomplished, and they’ll do it. One by one, they pound stakes into the ground for a new fence. After rain the previous night, the mosquitoes are relentless. The vets are wearing mosquito nets, but Rivers is exposed and laments that the “fucking mosquitoes are killing me!”
Rivers updates the Dysfunctional Veterans Facebook page hourly, from eight a.m. to eight p.m. He plans it out with his friend Beau, a disabled Army veteran who lives in North Carolina. He can’t leave his house much because of his disability, and sometimes Rivers will talk to him for hours at a time to keep him company.
Rivers has only three rules for what he posts. Nothing encouraging suicide, nothing ripping on veterans, and nothing racist. All of it, though, is meant to be as crude and shocking as possible to civilians.
“Look, when I started the site I was dysfunctional,” says Rivers, “and I’m trying to keep that for other people like me. So yeah, there’s some fucked up stuff, but that’s because a lot of vets are fucked up.”
There are limits, though. Last year, Rivers had to stop posting about Barack Obama because it would generate so many racist comments the site was temporarily shut down.
“Are their racists on the DV page? Yeah, of course,” Rivers concedes. “That shit is everywhere, though. And I’m not going to shut down the site for every vet because some think that way.”
The biggest enemy Rivers faces online, though, is other veterans. “I call these guys the Super Vets,” he says. They’re mostly ex-Special Operations soldiers. They’ve taken their experience and distilled it down to the coolest and most marketable elements. The guns, the gear, the Special Forces beards. And they are vocal about their contempt for a trope I’ve become familiar with: the veteran who throws his service in everyone’s face.
“I hate seeing these guys rip on other vets,” says Rivers. “I don’t give a fuck if you’re a Ranger or if you were in the Coast Guard. These guys want to act like they’re better than everyone else. Fuck them.”
While the basic premise of the DV Farm is the same as the Veteran Victory Homestead – sober living, farming and animal-therapy as a means to treat PTSD – one can’t help but notice the atmosphere. It’s thick with veteran culture. Rivers will playfully address some of the vets at the farm with “hey fuckers!” just like an NCO addressing his squad. And while many of the vets staying at DV Farm are in contact with VA counselors, true solidarity seems to exist when they are around each other.
Exactly what does that solidarity mean though? For all the talk of preventing suicide and helping veterans get back on track, there doesn’t appear to be much emphasis on letting go of the past. Just because a veteran leaves the DV Farm sober and with a job lined up, it doesn’t seem to mean he’ll want to stop being a “Dysfunctional Veteran.”
Browse any online veterans forum, and you’ll probably see debates between people staking out similar positions. It’s the question of what military service means in this country.
As Rivers tells me at one point “people here just think a certain way I don’t.” At first I can’t tell who he is talking about, but he is driving at the same question: why do we who have served still feel the tinge of yearning and regret when we see a subtle reminder of the life we used to live.
It’s the question of whether to move on or whether to become a professional veteran.
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Editor’s Note: This piece was reported in June, and the dog mentioned in it has since passed away. Since then, the farm has adopted a new rescue dog, a refugee from Hurricane Harvey whom the veterans named Storm.