I never have met Dan's mother but we have talked on the phone a good bit and by email. It was in one of those first written notes that she got my attention. Her words were riveting.
“ Al, I gave the Marine Corps a fine young man, eager to serve his fellow Marines and his country and look what they gave me back.”
His mom has a full-length cardboard cutout of her son in his full dress blues. It is a picture of the poster Marine, the one chosen to visually exemplify the rest. Sergeant stripes and combat action awards proudly worn. A newer cardboard cutout would show a demoted and fined corporal, racked by prescription drugs.
From the many phone calls we have shared, it’s obvious he's a smart guy. He wants badly to work, to share his future life as an equal partner. But pain drives his day. He is consumed by it. It was from an explosion in Iraq. His physical pain is in his back. It will be there for life. The explosion also caused traumatic brain injury (TBI), leading to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).
Daniel credits his wife with helping him adjust to living with PTS(d) and dealing with the non-supportive Kentucky facility. They were married in July of 2011 in a simple ceremony. Along with his black Labrador Retriever, they work together toward their goals.
When the State of Oregon first opened their cannabis door for approved patients, 70% of those initially applying wanted cannabis for pain - trauma, arthritis, phantom pain, joint pain such as fibromyalgia, rheumatism, more. Now it hovers near 80%.
During the recovery period from his physical wounds, he found cannabis helped him – a lot. He was an active duty Marine subject at any time to a urine test not because he was deficient or had a negative attitude, or that he was acting abnormally for the uptight group, but just because. That's what our country does now.
Clinics, test labs, technicians, trucking companies, governments, multiple levels of business, national and international now spend billions of years of labor and dollars checking urine to prove only that the person in question did or did not use some prohibited substance recently. Other than the money flowing through that spigot, the whole activity is illogical but it sure does let the worker know he or she is owned and controlled. Not too far from standard military life.
He was doing well. Sure he hurt, but it was bearable and he had hope – then - that prescription drugs and physical therapy and his youth would bring him to a functioning level or better. A urine test was announced.
He was “written up” for using an illegal substance, fined and demoted. He was placed on chemical drugs all while at a wounded warrior battalion in North Carolina. Here, he turned into a chemically induced zombie. Anger, confusion, terror, unconsciousness became his norm.
He attempted to shoot himself in the head.
By noon, Dan and his parents had left the Marine base, going home to KY. He was not discharged but placed in the care of his family.
Twenty years ago as a Vietnam Vet and combat counselor I lectured in meetings with health care professionals in Virginia where I was educating them about posttraumatic stress. I stressed dropping the ‘D.’ “These men and women are reacting normally to a completely abnormal set of traumatic experiences,” I argued. Call it a “response syndrome” to trauma. Change the medical terminology so that words “do no harm”.
It was during those years that I found it normal for a Vet to use cannabis to calm him, to sleep, to eat, to give up hard drugs, to reduce or end alcohol use. Two decades have passed and I recently spoke with a man, now a senior law enforcement official in NC, who had put in 5 years at a VA hospital.
“It was everywhere in the hospital,” he told me. “We all knew what they were smoking and why. It was OK with everybody.”
But not anymore. The VA hospital in Lexington, KY has refused to prescribe opiate-based painkillers to Daniel because of cannabis use. The half dozen, non-opiate based chemicals they did try on him failed. Furthermore, an Emergency Room MD told him that the hospital’s policy was to deny opiates to known drug addicts. Because it was in his Marine record that he used cannabis, he was labeled an addict.
I co-founded a Veterans service organization, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access for exactly the behavior exhibited by this VA facility. I have a letter in my possession written by the Undersecretary for Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, dated July 06, 2010 addressed to my co-founder of VMCA. It reads:
“This is a follow-up response to your letter requesting clarification of the Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) policy regarding the practice of prescribing opioid therapy for pain management for Veterans who provide documentation of the use of medical marijuana in accordance with state law.” (State law is an important factor now in treatment for all Veterans regardless of duty period or medical problem. I call it treatment by geography. A completely new medical concept, never tried before in human history, being experimented with on the wounded.)
He continues, “If a Veteran obtains and uses medical marijuana in a manner consistent with state law, testing positive for marijuana would not preclude the Veteran from receiving opioids for pain management in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility.”
Basically, If Kentucky had medical marijuana laws, Dan would be OK.
Who or what is to blame for this travesty? The Commanding Officer for being a bureaucrat instead of a doctor? Kentucky politicians for being feckless cowards? The ER physician for sending a man in pain out on the street? His case worker at the VA for being a lemming? The entire Congress of the United Sates for sending the youth off to war and then abandoning them because they smoked a joint?
They could all be stand up humans, but are too afraid. Dan stood up and they had a chance to treat him as a role model.
Instead they don't treat him at all.
Dan completed two tours in Iraq. He did them both with Larry. The first tour for them physically was a pass. Men died around them, the smell of rot filled their senses, doubt filled their soul, heat, boredom and sudden terror filled their days but they were physically OK. During the second tour, the world as these two Marines knew it, ended forever.
Each was blown up by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) built out of unexploded bombs from aircraft, or scavenged containers, and scraps of wire and filled with nails and glass and scrap metal pieces and exploded with stolen C4 or old ordinance buried until needed.
They were both returned to duty and continued to patrol as before, but this was before Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and the resulting potential for PTS was considered a wound. After returning to the US, Dan was treated for PTS and cannabis use at a six-week inpatient facility under Marine care. Months later, following the “failed” urine test, Dan's life changed again…for the worse. No pain control for a Marine in pain. “Support the Troops.” Picture all the yellow ribbons.
Larry was a California guy and returned to his home state after his discharge. He was, and is, treated in a VA hospital in that state. The VA Undersecretary for Health, as stated above, has directed that opiate treatment be provided in VA facilities in “legal” states at the discretion and based on the judgment of the individual patients' needs and the attending physician, NP or PA. Larry is a registered cannabis patient and, following the Undersecretary for Health’s recommendation, is treated for his pain with opiates. He is attending college.
On the phone, Dan said to me, “Al, Larry and I were shot at by the same people. We shot at the same people. We got blown up by the same kind of bomb. The shrapnel I carry in me is the same shit that Larry carries in his body…
Why won't they help me?”