“I just want to work with other vets again. No one else understands.”
“This is a phrase we at AVAR have heard often since we began our program in early 2016. AVAR’s mission is to assist disabled American military veterans in their transition to civilian life by allowing them to participate in archaeological excavations. Thanks to Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, most people associate archaeology with a certain sense of adventure, and it is no accident that many real archaeologists have had a military background. Famous examples include T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Jane Dieulafoy, and the ‘Monuments Men’ of WWII. There is no doubt that archaeology can provide insights into America’s past, or that these insights have value in defining who we are as a country. However, most people would not expect archaeology to have therapeutic value or to solve modern social problems.
AVAR knows it can.
Archaeological excavation is incredibly effective in creating strong, cohesive groups. This already occurs on digs around the world as the volunteers bond around the shared sense of adventure and accomplishment. For many it is this social element as much as an interest in the past that keeps them coming back year after year. AVAR takes this aspect of the excavation environment and enhances it by introducing staff members with leadership and teambuilding skills honed through years or decades of military service.
But there are literally thousands of non-profits that allow veterans to bond over everything from horseback riding to SCUBA diving to golf. What makes archaeology any different?
Excavations have a mission, a specific research objective which dictates their excavation strategy and the equipment they will utilise in the field. The success or failure of this mission can change our understanding of history, so that mission matters. The work requires constant interaction and cooperation among small groups. Typically 2-4 new volunteers will excavate a single trench under the watchful eye of a supervisor, who is in turn responsible to a field supervisor and so on. Normally the dig team lives and eats in close proximity to one another, sometimes in rough conditions. The work is physically demanding but also requires precision and constant concentration as every bit of dirt removed could change the interpretation of the site. Veterans are right at home in these conditions; most say archaeology digs remind them of their time in service. They want to be part of something larger than themselves again. AVAR lets them do that.
We have seen disabled veterans’ eyes light up with a new sense of purpose as they test themselves by carrying out challenging, meaningful work. We have seen previously isolated veterans build long-term friendships as they work in trenches. We have seen these friendships carry veterans through the hard times. Having carried out four successful digs to date we believe that archaeology offers enormous benefit to those who have served…and that archaeologists might be able to learn a thing or two from veterans as well.
AVAR relies upon partnerships with commercial and academic archaeologists to provide our veterans with high-quality training. In addition to learning transferable skills such as LIDAR and photogrammetry, volunteers learn the basics of using a trowel and a pickaxe. These are skills that can be learned in a day but take a lifetime to perfect, so AVAR provides all of its participants with a pocket-sized Archaeology Skills Passport to document their progression. Veterans carry these while working and can ask a supervisor to assess their performance on a task when they feel ready. This system is similar to the training progression system used by the US military, and as veterans can take the passports from one dig to the next they can continue to build their skills, and their confidence, over the long-term.
Archaeological excavation gives our veterans a chance to pursue excellence as a team in the same way they did while wearing the uniform. Some of our participants have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and some have physical injuries. Excavation gives them a chance to prove that these injuries will not define them.
If you are interested in digging with AVAR or would like more information please join us or contact us today.
—Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR
Stephen Humphreys, BA, MTh, MA
Stephen Humphreys was commissioned in the US Air Force following his completion of a BA in History at the University of North Texas. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer, deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Following an assignment as Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies at Texas A&M University, his passion for teaching led him to transition out of the military to pursue an academic career.
Stephen holds an MA in Archaeology and Biblical Studies and an MA in Theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently working toward a PhD in Archaeology at Durham University. He is a dedicated field archaeologist and has excavated in Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
Clarissa Humphreys, LMSW, LCDC
Mental Health Advisor
Clarissa Humphreys is a Licensed Master Social Worker and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor in the State of Texas. She is also a Qualified Social Worker in England. Clarissa has worked with veterans in both inpatient and outpatient mental health and substance-use treatment settings. Clarissa has case management and clinical experience which includes providing group and individual therapy utilizing predominantly Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing. Clarissa supports the development of the crisis plans for each dig and ensures that there are volunteers who are trained in Mental Health First Aid on all excavations.
Clarissa has a Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin and a BA from Texas A&M University. Clarissa enjoys digging and has excavated in Israel and Cyprus.
Nichol Fuentes, BA
Nichol Fuentes joined the United States Marine Corps in 2003 and served for ten years as an Aviation Supply Specialist. She excelled in a variety of leadership roles in Japan and the United States, deploying to Iraq and Asia before separating as a Non-Commissioned Officer due to injuries sustained during her time in service. She has since served her community by teaching science and social studies at the 6th and 7th grade levels.
Nichol earned a BA in History through University of Maryland University College. She brought her unique leadership and management skills to AVAR in 2018 after participating in the program’s excavation at Darrow, New York.