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Focusing on growth: West Michigan Marine Corps veteran reflects on service, returning to civilian life

The Purple Heart recipient says redirecting his energy to build something sustainable and healthy for others during the pandemic has been helpful for his recovery.

ROCKFORD, Mich. — The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that between 11 and 20 out of 100 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have PTSD in any given year. This Veterans Day, a West Michigan Purple Heart recipient is sharing how he's coped after returning home.

Fourth generation military veteran Justin Bajema says after his two tours in Iraq in the United States Marine Corps, recovery has been about redirecting his energy to build something sustainable and healthy for others during the pandemic.

"Every day I wake up, I have purpose," he says.

His purpose lately is taking care of his chickens. After the pandemic began, he started Rebel Pastures, focusing on rotational farming. He saw a need and took on something he'd never tried before.

"The first year we did 300 chickens, and this past year we did 3,600 chickens on pasture," he says. "We saw the food shortages and less meat in the grocery stores and we had to do something."

That drive comes from his service in Iraq. 

"I was part of the initial invasion in 2003, and then I came back in 2004 and went back in 2004," Bajema says. "Then I was injured twice."

He recovered from his first injury, but his second was a different story that he still remembers to this day. 

"The IED detonated, and it did directly beneath our vehicle," he says. "We went airborne and there was a bright flash. It was slow motion and surreal. I remember it to this day, it was deafening. There was no sound and it was quiet. We came down and I thought I died."

Bajema's gunner saved his life, protecting him from gunfire. He had to learn how to walk again after eight surgeries on his legs. He got a Purple Heart after sustaining his injuries, and from there, he says he had to make a decision. 

"I knew I had to be bigger than that and grow out of that and live my life as full as I could and to serve others as much as I could," he says.

With another shot at life, Bajema started multiple businesses. His latest as a chicken farmer means focusing on growth every single day. 

"It helped me channel some of the pain of war I'd say," he says. "It gave me a positive outlet to direct that energy at."

For other veterans out there struggling, Bajema hopes they turn to serving others. 

"It takes onus of oneself, and it makes us bigger by focusing on other people," he says. 

Right now, his farm has about 150 chickens producing eggs. Rebel Pastures' products can be found online and at farmer's markets. One online farmer's market, Market Wagon, is something that Bajema says has helped his business. 

"Our partnership with Market Wagon has helped us deliver the products from the end steps, from the freezer to the doorstep, and that's been great for us," he says. "We're in seven counties in West Michigan, we have thousands of customers to reach and it's a great vehicle for our chicken."

Market Wagon has 55 vendors selling more than 1,100 products in West Michigan, and founder Nick Carter says the platform can be beneficial to all kinds of farmers.

"For new and first-time farmers, getting access to the market is key, scaling up a family farm, you have got to find consumers that are interested in buying that product from you," he says. "Farmer's markets are great, but they're a little limited. What were offering is on par with other e-commerce grocery, but with access to local farmers."

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