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New Sunrise butterfly garden offers serenity to veterans

Brendan Doyle, Errol Simmons and Michael Thomas are three veterans and master gardeners who were instrumental in getting a butterfly garden planted on VA clinic property in Sunrise.
Brendan Doyle, Errol Simmons and Michael Thomas are three veterans and master gardeners who were instrumental in getting a butterfly garden planted on VA clinic property in Sunrise. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The yellow and orange milkweed flowers attract mosaic-winged monarch butterflies. The corky stem passion vine planted along the metal fence waves to the yellow and black zebra longwings. And the yellow sulphur butterflies enjoy sipping nectar from the tubular flowers of the nearby firebush.

These butterflies are enjoying a small garden behind the William “Bill” Link Veteran’s Administration Clinic in Sunrise. “The clinic attracts the whole gamut from senior citizens to young combat veterans,” explains Errol Simmons, a veteran who served as a personnel clerk to the Armed Forces Network Europe in the 1960s and now lives in Miramar.

The older vets who encounter traffic like to sit in the garden for a few minutes before going inside for an appointment. Those with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) enjoy getting away from their memories if only for a few restful moments. And the depressed find that growing things gives them purpose in their lives.

It was Brendan Doyle, 67, a veteran who lives in Dania Beach, who was inspired to create this butterfly oasis. Doyle, a master gardener, has been suffering PTSD ever since he and his fellow fighters in Charlie Company were dropped in the jungles of Vietnam for a year of combat.

Although that was almost 50 years ago, he still suffers PTSD. Something as common as a ceiling fan can bring back feelings of terror as it puts him in mind of helicopter blades spinning overhead. The smell of rubber reminds him of body bags. “Being in a new tire store can bring back a ‘video’ of memories in my head,” he says. And having an appointment makes him anxious because if he didn’t make a rendezvous in the jungle, it could mean death.

“I knew I had to do things to try to forget the war and, over the years, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do to help myself is to help others,” he says. So he decided to establish a butterfly garden at this clinic, which serves 150,000 veterans in the tri-county area.

For help, he turned to fellow master gardeners Simmons and Michael Thomas, 62, of Miami Gardens, who medically retired at the rank of command sergeant major after 26 years of active duty. 

“These retired military administrators were like angels who put my idea on wheels and got things going,” Doyle says.

They began by talking with the clinic’s chief medical officer, Dr. Phillip B. Greenberg, who quickly realized the importance of the project.

“I think there are traditional therapies and nontraditional therapies such as gardening that can benefit our veterans who have all sorts of mental and physical health issues,” says Greenberg.

They walked the property and, with the property owner,

agreed on a 400-square-foot grassy patch in a back corner of the sprawling parking lot where a small oak and a few silver buttonwood trees cast shadows. An in-ground sprinkler system was already in place.

Without any funding, the trio set to work on their garden refuge. “It was our goal to create a relaxing place where everyone is welcome to commune with nature,” says Simmons.

They spread white plastic tarps on the ground to let it solarize in the sun, a six-week process that kills the grass and any pests burrowing in the soil.

Then they turned to others for help. As master gardeners, they had a sense of what to plant but they wanted to maximize their space. So they got the input of the Broward County Butterfly Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, a not-for-profit organization that works to help people enjoy and conserve butterflies.

They worked with a number of chapter members, including Cindy Jenkins who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “We recommended about a dozen different plants to attract the majority of butterflies that lay eggs and develop into butterflies in our tropical zone,” she says. The plant list included porterweed, wild coffee and sweet almond.

By November 2014, the supplies they needed had been donated, including five dozen plants, mulch, soil, a bench and a bird bath. With the help and sweat of other veterans and community groups, they planted.

“When you are out there working, even a small space seems to grow really, really big,” says Simmons. But with 15 shovel-wielding volunteers, the garden was planted quickly and is now open to veterans.

Getting the garden going has taken some doing and, of course, the job isn’t finished. The three veterans still hope to add some sort of shade, a ramp to make the area more accessible to wheelchairs and raised beds for vegetables that will allow those in wheelchairs to till the soil.

And once a month they organize classes for veterans who want to try gardening at home. Vegetable gardening is a popular topic with veterans who like to feel they are creating something from nothing.

“This project is just one way I can grab other veterans by the hand and let them know I’ve been there,” says Doyle. “It’s a chance to help lead them through the minefields that remain in their lives and cope with life back here in the States.”

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

Butterfly gardens

Information: The Broward County Butterfly Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, http://browardbutterflies.org. Miami Blue Chapter, serving Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, http://miamiblue.org. North American Butterfly Association, http://naba.org.

The Broward County Butterfly Chapter recommended these butterfly-attracting plants for the garden at the William “Bill” Link VA Clinic in Sunrise:

▪ Jatropha

▪ Firebush

▪ Star jasmine

▪ Milkweed

▪ Porterweed

▪ Red pentas

▪ Wild coffee

▪ Bahamian Cassia (Sulphurs)

▪ Corky Stem passion vine

▪ Passiflora Incarta

▪ Sweet almond