2014-05-22 / Life in Leelanau

Purple Heart infantrymen find work on Empire hops farm

By Patti Brandt
Of The Enterprise staff


ERIC PEREZ and Ryan Paulton became fast friends while stationed together at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. Paulton grew up in Leelanau County and Perez moved to the area from Saginaw when his friend told him about a job at Empire Orchards. ERIC PEREZ and Ryan Paulton became fast friends while stationed together at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. Paulton grew up in Leelanau County and Perez moved to the area from Saginaw when his friend told him about a job at Empire Orchards. Getting returning veterans back to work has been a recent focus of the White House administration, but two local men have had no problem finding jobs.

Ryan Paulton and Eric Perez, both of whom served time in Afghanistan, are working for Empire Orchards, where they have been stringing hops trellises in preparation for this year’s crop.

Paulton grew up in Lake Leelanau and Perez, a Saginaw native, moved to the area in March. Both are recipients of the Purple Heart Medal for wounds they received while serving as U.S. Army infantrymen.

Paulton and Perez, who are both 25, were stationed in Afghanistan at the same time, though in different units. Before that, they were stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. They met through mutual friends at a Sublime concert.


EMPIRE ORCHARDS on Fredrickson Road in Empire Township has employed two returning Afghanistan veterans, both of whom are Purple Heart Medal recipients. EMPIRE ORCHARDS on Fredrickson Road in Empire Township has employed two returning Afghanistan veterans, both of whom are Purple Heart Medal recipients. Paulton, who returned home in March 2013, didn’t have a job the first couple of months that he was home, but said he wasn’t really looking. He had just come from a year of physical therapy for injuries sustained when the Stryker armored vehicle he was in rolled over an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

But then, “a couple of jobs just fell in my lap,” Paulton said. One of those was the job at Empire Orchards, where he has been working since September.

Perez, who said he went into the Army straight from high school, came home in 2012 and did some traveling before he began to look for employment. It was then that Paulton called him about the farming job.

“I came back from traveling and I was looking for a job when Ryan called,” Perez said.

He jokes that he didn’t learn any farming skills in the Army except for how to use a shovel.

But Alex Wiesen, whose family owns Empire Orchards on Fredrickson Road in Empire Township, disagrees.

“They know how to follow direction and they have discipline and great leadership skills,” Wiesen said. “The guys really respect them and look up to them for what they did for our country.”

Wiesen said neither Paulton or Perez ever complain about their injuries.

“You would never know they were injured,” he said. “They don’t complain like the other guys do about little things.”

Both Paulton and Perez say the work is hard, but the pay is good. Besides, they’re not afraid of hard work.

Paulton, in fact, says he found something he wants to do for the rest of his life and has started his own hops farm on the Eagle Highway property his family owns. The Brede-Hops farm is just under three acres, he said.

Paulton grew up on a farm, but said most of the land was leased out. His family raised llamas and had a garden, he said.

“Nothing on this scale,” he said. “But I did have daily chores.”

Perez said that some employers may be afraid to hire veterans because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can occur after a person has been through a traumatic event.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD occurs in about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in about 10 percent of those who served in the Gulf War, and in about 30 percent of those who served in Vietnam.

PTSD may be seen as a stigma, Perez said, because the disorder has been “overplayed by the media.” The disorder is very real, he said, but everybody who has it is lumped into the same category. In reality, there are degrees of the disorder, he said.

“Everyone has really overplayed the whole PTSD thing and people might be afraid of that,” Perez said.

Paulton agrees, saying it has been portrayed as severe and that everyone has it.

Wiesen said he feels it’s important to hire returning veterans.

“It’s super important,” he said. “And it’s great to have them on the farm and see them have a passion for it.”

Perez has been married for four years to Alane, who recently got a job at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and will be moving to the area.

“She’s really happy that I got a good job and it’s something that I enjoy,” he said.

Getting returning veterans back to work is also a priority at the state level. In November, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new public-private partnership that is meant to provide information and technology training and certification to Michigan veterans.

The Michigan Shifting Careers: IT Networking Certifications Program for Military Servicemembers program builds on technical skills and leadership qualities the vets may already have.

The program partners with private companies and universities to provide free training for veterans that leads to certification for high-demand jobs in the IT field.

And once they’ve completed training and certification, the program helps them to find full-time employment. Veterans can also use the credits they have earned toward college degrees.

In addition, Disabled Veterans Outreach Program specialists are available at most Michigan Works offices to assist eligible veterans and their spouses who need help finding jobs.

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