"I'm not a veteran, but in my experience they tend to ask, 'What can we do to help you out?'" he said.
And for many of them, the way to serve country and community these days is not with a gun but with a plow.
"That geopolitical stuff all comes down to our local economy," Joseph Fields said. "It's all tied together, for me anyway."
'People were searching'
Lewis realized that farming might be the answer for a lot of vets. He is working with Michael O'Gorman, founder of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which began in California in 2009 and now is reaching out to Kentucky and other farming states.
O'Gorman's roots are in organic farming; he was one of the first to grow for legendary chef Alice Waters, and he ran one of the largest organic vegetable operations in the country. Now his focus is on veterans.
"I never thought it would become the big project that it is," O'Gorman said. "The more we do, the more we impact. As soon as we posted something online with 'farmer' and 'veteran,' we began hearing from veterans around the country. People were searching."
O'Gorman, too, has noticed the correlation between the military and farming.
"I think there's something really attractive about the sense of service. Feeding people, the need for new farmers, the sense of mission," he said. "When you come out (of the military), that's what you miss." Vets are thinking, "Where do I regain that sense of purpose that was driving my life?"
The parallels are obvious: It's challenging, physical, necessary and risky.
"There's even outdoor plumbing," O'Gorman said.
The network has formed almost organically:
-- The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is putting its network of farm contacts into the Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets Initiative and has come up with a new logo, Homegrown by Heroes, to put on veteran-grown products. The logo will be unveiled next month.
-- Radcliff-based USA Cares, the largest non-profit veterans service organization, will help match vets looking for a niche in agriculture with farms looking for motivated workers.
-- Grow Appalachia, funded by philanthropist John Paul DeJoria (of Paul Mitchell hair products fame), is providing seed money.
-- Vets themselves are eager to pitch in.
"Every veteran that gets started wants to help others," O'Gorman said.
His group is now in discussions with the state Department of Agriculture on licensing the Homegrown by Heroes logo nationwide to promote veteran-grown products at point of sale.
"I think it's fantastic," O'Gorman said. "It's all about pride -- the fact that they can grow something. That's part of the story the veteran wants to tell. ... It's a very visceral attraction, that realness. I think it will help sell it. But that's secondary. Lots of people who see that label will want to say hi, hear their stories."
Those stories often are about saving themselves by saving others.
A new call to service
It's hard to see a tomato as heroic, but soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan say farming has become their new call to service.
And along the way, many are finding a kind of solace in soil.
Michael Lewis learned that firsthand as he watched his brother, Fred-Curtis Lewis, recover from injuries he suffered as a Special Forces medic in Afghanistan. Originally from Maine, the brothers wound up near Richmond with family and began farming next to each other.
"I was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury," Fred-Curtis said. "He saw how I was transformed. And he realized it was working for him as well."
Michael Lewis had his own struggles after leaving the military in 1998. He served two years in Washington, D.C., with the 3rd Infantry Honor Guard, sometimes escorting four flag-draped caskets a day at Arlington National Cemetery. After hundreds of funerals, he said, he needed to put something in the ground besides fellow soldiers.