Army Veteran Couple Was Floundering in Civilian Life – Until They Started This Eccentric Farm

Jen and David are the kind of people who have a habit of just jumping into things feet first. They met in the Army shortly before they were both deployed to Iraq and were engaged after just three weeks. “We just knew,” says Jen.

They got married on leave halfway through their 14-month deployment and haven’t looked back. “It definitely made for an interesting first year of marriage,” she laughs, recalling their time together in the Army. “Which I guess is why we’ve been able to be together so long afterward because we both know what we each experienced and went through.”

Then they took the same kind of big leap years later, when they were back in the states and had the opportunity to buy an old farm.

David was working in a steel mill, and Jen was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The pair had been struggling to reacclimate to civilian life after getting out of the military, they were sick of busy suburban life, and they weren’t feeling fulfilled.

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

“We were actually going to move to Florida, because I thought I wanted to live on the beach. I thought it’d be better for our mental and physical health,” Jen recalls. “And his [David’s] brother actually lives not too far from the farm, and he said, ‘Well, there’s a farm down the road for sale, and I really think you guys need to come see it.’ And we’re just like, ‘A farm? Like, what are we gonna do with that? But okay, sure. We’ll go see it.'”

Jen and David immediately felt that this was where they were meant to be, but Jen was unsure about their lack of a plan for what to do with 42 whole acres. When she asked David what they were going to do with all that land, however, he simply said, “Whatever you want. Whatever we feel like we want to do. It’s ours.”

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

So despite the fact that they didn’t have experience owning farm animals or any idea what they were going to do, they bought the farm, which they dubbed Baghdad to Barnyard.

For a year and a half, there were no animals on the farm except the dog they adopted shortly after returning from Iraq, but Jen thought it would be fun to own donkeys, so that was what they looked for first.

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

They heard about a donkey who was overweight and was living on a horse trailer, so they took him in. That donkey, Roy, needed a buddy, of course, so they then adopted two feral donkeys, Rocky and Annie, who had never been handled. They showed no hesitation – just a desire to help.

“It all started with one donkey and, within a couple of months, we had, like, over 30 animals. So it just kind of snowballed, one after another,” says Jen.

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

When they first got the feral donkeys, they couldn’t even get close enough to touch them. They had to be sedated for even simple medical checkups and farrier work. But David and Jen were persistent. They spent hours a day in the barn with the beasts until they began to get used to human companionship.

“Eventually they would start, you know, coming up to me. And I started clicker training and positive reinforcement and halter training them, and then eventually, we got them to allow me to brush them and pick up their feet and clean them out. And so it took like almost 2 1/2 years before we didn’t have to use any sedation or anything.”

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

Happily, the donkeys now act more like dogs than donkeys. They aren’t fearful of humans and even happily lay their heads in Jen’s lap. The persistence has paid off.

Jen knew she wanted lots of animals, and David, who also has a heart for animals, never stopped her from getting a single one of them. He even sometimes pointed out an animal he found that was in need of a home.

Now, 6 years after the farm was purchased, it contains a wildly eccentric mix of animals, including five donkeys, five horses, two peacocks, three chickens, four ducks, three goats, four house bunnies, two chinchillas, two parrots, and 13 cats.

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

“We don’t really have someone that kind of keeps us in check with that part. We just keep getting more and more,” says Jen.

Their budget is the only thing that really reigns them in. David, who is retired from the Army, and Jen, who is medically retired, run their farm entirely from their own pockets, relying neither on farm profits or on donations to keep things running. They’ve even cut out vacations and other non-essentials like eating out to be able to do more of what they love – helping animals.

Two of the newest additions to the farm are Sage and Pepper, who were rescued by Hope’s Legacy Equine Rescues in Afton, VA. Sage, a mini horse, had been rescued from a field with a makeshift shelter and no food.

“She was underweight, malnourished, covered head to toe in burrs, and her hooves were so severely overgrown that they had curled and were cutting into the front of her legs,” says Jen. “So she couldn’t walk or anything because it was so much weight. She just couldn’t do anything but lay down most of the time.”

The rescue wasn’t sure whether they’d ever be able to get Sage healthy enough to adopt her out, but Jen requested to apply to adopt her anyway. Later, her farrier, who also turned out to be the rescue’s farrier, recommended her, and so the rescue let her adopt Sage, along with her bonded companion, an underweight Tennessee Walker named Pepper.

Photo: Instagram/baghdadtobarnyard

“I’ve never had a full size horse, I’ve never even ridden on a horse,” says Jen. “At first, I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know if this is something that will work for us or not,’ but within a few minutes of us hanging out with them, you could just tell he had an interest. We just knew we couldn’t separate them. They had been through so much together.”

And so she jumped in yet again. But she hasn’t regretted taking on any of her animals so far, even though they’ve presented with numerous health problems and created other challenges she never thought she might have to deal with. Spending time with them and seeing them transforming and living good lives, she says, is fulfilling.

“For us, it just gives us a purpose. And it’s something that we really enjoy that I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than this now.”

Jen says her animals have also helped her overcome her addiction to pharmaceuticals, and they have also eased her and her husband’s depression and PTSD.

“Being able to see animals thriving and being in a good environment and having a life that they may not have had before just makes all the hard work worth it.”

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