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Student Spotlight: Sewing the Seeds of New Life

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Fresno State plant science senior Sean Day knew he was going to be a Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) team member since the young age of 12.

He remembers watching his older brother, Mike, who was a Navy SEAL at the time, parachuting down as part of the Leap Frogs parachute team into a stadium during a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. However, due to the wind, he had a bad opening and barely landed, causing a near-death experience.

“An hour later, after he’s undressed and everything, he came over to talk to me and acted like nothing happened,” Day said. That experienced instilled in him the thought of becoming a Navy SEAL, to the point that everything he did was in order to reach his goal.

After graduating from North Penn High School in 2002, the North Wales, Pa., native graduated a year later from SEAL basic underwater demolitions training.

Assigned to SEAL Team Two in Virginia Beach, Va., he served as a special operations combat medic, naval special warfare scout, sniper, point man and lead navigator in deployments to Afghanistan, Africa, South America, Europe and Iraq.

He earned many commendations among five tours of duty, including a joint service medal, a Navy and Marine Corps medal with combat “V” (designation for an act of valor), three combat action ribbons, and letters of appreciation from President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

He even tried out to be a part of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six, although he did not make the team. “It may have have saved my life, because my whole fire team was later killed,” he said.

A potential career path after active service was to work for the Central Intelligence Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Those plans changed after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after 100 combat deployments and dealing with the deaths of his Navy SEAL comrades.

“I started having these thoughts that we were going to be attacked at home or something similar,” Day said, “so I started growing food out of this weird delusion, but then I realized that it was helping my PTSD.”

His newfound interest in agriculture also helped in choosing a new career path as he transitioned into civilian life in 2013.

His wife, Theresa, was accepted into the residency program at UCSF Fresno Center for Medical Education and Research, which led him to enroll in the plant science department in the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in the fall of 2015.

During his time at Fresno State, Day participated in a variety of agriculture outreach activities and research projects. Alongside fellow student Aldo Garcia, he installed a soil monitoring and weather station on the Tule River Indian Tribe Reservation near Porterville as part of his summer internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).

He also helped youth from the West Fresno Family Resource Center plant, manage and harvest a sweet potato plot with other Fresno State plant science students and staff.

On campus, he has helped organize a 1/4-acre plot that the plant science club uses to grow vegetables for the Bulldog Pantry and helps students with food insecurity issues.

“The classroom is great for learning theory, but until you get your hands dirty you can't really learn the finer details of farming,” Day said. “Those experiences are vital for students who will soon be entering jobs as pest control advisors (PCA), certified crop advisors (CCA) or farm managers.”

Day next hopes to attend the University of Arizona to get a master’s of science degree from its soil, water and environment science program. One of his dreams while at the university is to help make human life possible on Mars.

“They have a simulated moonbase named Biosphere 2,” he said. “They already make mock martian soil and try to grow plants on it so I want to be a part of their program.”

While he has his eyes set on Mars, he plans on also being a traditional farmer with his wife.

“We I would like to have a 100-acre permaculture farm that could incorporate and help other veterans who suffer from PTSD,” Day said, “We want to provide a wide variety of food like pecans, pomegranates, table and raisin grapes, citrus, onions, lettuce, melons, tomatoes, etc. for community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and directly to restaurants.”

All these goals are now possible through the work and relationships that he has made as a Fresno State student.

“I didn’t grow up farming, so I basically learned almost everything I know from our faculty and students,” Day said. “Robyn Gutierrez (Fresno State veteran services coordinator) and her staff have also been such a blessing to help me in my transition, especially in accessing my military-student benefits. She is a huge asset to our campus and the veteran student body.”

Trained to overcome obstacles in many of the the world’s most dangerous settings, Day is now impressed at how farmers manage familiar and new challenges everyday.

“The passion, the precision and the patience required in agriculture really unites this community,” Day said. “There is an everyday appreciation for where our food comes from here that you don’t find in many places, and our students take a lot of joy of sharing that love with others.”

-- by Eric Zamora, Geoff Thurner and Phil Smith

NOTE: Those interested in joining the Farmer Veteran Coalition can visit https://www.farmvetco.org to learn how to receive various services and resources for veterans at any phase of their ag career development. The organization hopes to add chapters in every state and offer assistance assistance to those who choose to serve their country twice – once by defending it and once by feeding it.