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Gardens thrive at NYC housing for veterans

Fred Petzold, 65, a veteran of the Vietnam

Fred Petzold, 65, a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and a resident of The Knickerbocker Residence for Homeless Veterans, tends to the organic garden as a part-time employee in the Services for the Underserved Urban Gardening Program. (August 22, 2012) Credit: Charles Eckert

It took only a moment for a Brooklyn native and Vietnam vet to envision a garden of green peppers, tomatoes and kale in the backyard of his new home -- a Bushwick apartment building for homeless veterans.

"There was a great big hedge against that wall. I started to pull up the grass and began to plant," Fred Petzold, 64, said, recalling the day he moved in 2005. "Instead of destroying life like I did in my earlier life I am now creating food," said Petzold, who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Battle of Dak To. "It was a bloody fight and the officers weren't afraid to get into the mix," Petzold said Wednesday.

Petzold is one of 48 veterans living at the Knickerbocker apartments at Knickerbocker Avenue and Cooper Street, which opened in 1995.

At Knickerbocker, homeless veterans live in the rent-free studio apartments and they receive counseling for trauma, substance abuse and mental illness. Social workers also help connect them to services that help them to live independently.

"Through the grace of God I got here," said Petzold. When he returned from Vietnam, he was living a "day-to-day survival" on the streets. "Through the grace of strangers I was able to get any kind of work. In the winters, I shoveled snow from 68th Street to 73rd" in Bay Ridge, he said.

Petzold's vegetable garden of eight raised garden beds produces about 10 pounds of food a week -- about 200 pounds during the season.

Its success has inspired three more gardens at housing properties operated by Services for the Underserved in Brownsville, East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant, said Dan Lohaus, the organization's Green Initiatives director who hauled about 1,200 bags of organic soil for the garden beds this year.

"The garden draws people out of their rooms and has them gravitate to Fred, who helps them feel welcome," Lohaus said. He said he wants to expand the garden program by cultivating vacant lots. "We can provide organic food to the community and train our vets to work in nurseries," Lohaus said.

The gardens are also "therapeutic and provide nutritious food," said Jennifer Kelley, Knickerbocker supervisor and program director.

The nonprofit Services for the Underserved helps more than 400 New York City veterans -- 25 percent of whom have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ninety percent of the veterans are homeless, and 70 percent suffer from chronic mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse.

"Returning veterans face multiple challenges," said Donna Colonna, chief executive. "Linking urban gardening to our veterans' housing has helped them get involved and regain their dignity."

The nonprofit operates residential properties across the city -- from single-family homes to 50-unit apartment buildings with funding from federal, state and city sources. Residences are for homeless veterans and family members.

The program costs about $80 million annually and is paid for with federal, state and city funds including Medicaid. The nonprofit also receives donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.

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