Combat Veteran, Doctor and Now Gardener - Veterans Health Administration
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Combat Veteran, Doctor and Now Gardener

A man points to his garden

Navy Veteran Wesley McFarland Photo by Mary Kay Gominger

By Mary Kay Gominger, Public Affairs Officer, Gulf Coast VA Health Care System
Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What makes 91-year-old Navy Veteran Wesley McFarland happy now is to have his hands in the dirt, working in his garden in front of the community living center at the Biloxi VA Medical Center, which he now calls home. That wasn’t always the case though. In fact, as a boy working in the cotton fields in Franklin County, Miss., he wished he could have been anywhere else.

As the son of a sharecropper, McFarland and his family lived off the land, literally.

“We bought a few things along the way, but back then if you wanted it, you grew it,” he recalls. And nothing about growing up a farmer’s son is easy.

“You don’t know what hot is until you are in Mississippi in the middle of the summer thinning cotton all day,” McFarland said. “I did that from the time I was just a kid, until I left to join the Navy at 18.”

And that’s when McFarland’s life took the first of several drastic changes.

“I was a gunner radioman, a dive bomber, in a two-seat aircraft,” McFarland said. “It was an exciting time. It scared the hell out of me. I wish I could go back,” he continued only half kidding.

McFarland was stationed for the most part of his Navy tour on the USS Enterprise.

“After Pearl Harbor, the Enterprise was one of the few carriers still out there,” he said. “We all wondered if we would make it back after each mission. So many didn’t.”

Earned Degree on the GI Bill

McFarland did make it back though, and after a four-year stint in the Navy, he decided it was time for another drastic change. Using his newly-earned GI Bill, he decided to go to college. McFarland had never been a stellar student, he admits, working on the farm always taking a priority. Still, he attended the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., and upon graduation, he successfully applied to medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“I’ve always been a believer that life is what you make it.”

Dr. McFarland settled along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in a small fishing community called Bay St. Louis, and was a general practitioner for the next 55 years.

“I was into a little bit of everything,” Dr. McFarland recalls. “I was delivering babies, making house calls, doing surgery at the hospital, then making it back to the office for regular appointments.

Patient’s bill for $3

“Back then, an office visit was $3 and a house call was $5. I can’t tell you the times I was out all hours of the night on house calls. Nor could I count the number of times I was paid by means other than cash ... shrimp, fish, and bushels of vegetables. Times were tough for everyone,” he said. “But I didn’t mind. I just wanted to help people.”

He lost everything 10 years ago in Hurricane Katrina. His home was on the water in Bay St. Louis, right where Katrina came ashore.

Dr. McFarland is pleased that his service to his country qualified him to live at the VA community living center. The garden is his way of making it his home. “I enjoy watching them grow.”

“This is my touch of reality,” he said pointing to his garden. “I planted this garden with seeds and I enjoy watching them grow to maturity.” Sprouting in the garden are watermelon, cantaloupe, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions.

“I’ve always been a believer in the saying that life is what you make it,” Dr. McFarland said. “Here at my new home, I am taking that to heart.”