War Without End

As veterans return home from combat in the Middle East, many struggle to leave their experiences behind. They are sleepless, anxious, and angry, and medications often make the situation worse. No wonder a growing number of former soldiers are turning to a treatment that makes them criminals in Texas: marijuana.
Photo Illustration by Darren Braun

Dave spent 21 years in the Army, served in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and retired at the rank of major.* As a communications officer for the support command of the 1st Cavalry Division, he was stationed near Baghdad when the insurgency was inflicting heavy casualties on coalition troops in 2004 and 2005. “I was in the operations center at Taji [a base just north of Baghdad] for twelve to sixteen hours a day, hearing the war on radios and watching it on computers,” he told me. “Every detail of everything that happened in Baghdad.” The first casualty he heard about was a soldier in a Humvee who had his face blown off by an IED that was hanging from an overpass in a soda can. Not long after, he briefed a first lieutenant fresh out of college. A few hours later, the young officer’s supply convoy ran over an IED that took her leg off at the knee.

(*The full names of the veterans in this article, all of whom live in Texas, have been withheld to protect their privacy.)

“A lot of people got killed at Taji,” Dave said. “We were under constant bombardment from rockets and mortars. You never knew when it would come. A mortar destroyed my sleeping quarters at a time when I would normally have been taking a nap after a shift. A barrage of rockets slaughtered a cluster of Arkansas guardsmen gathered outside a bunker to smoke. The survivors were all screaming and crying at seeing their comrades blown apart, but their first sergeant started yelling, ‘Stop crying! This is how God makes us strong.’ ” 

Several months after returning to Texas, Dave checked himself into the mental health clinic at his military base. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was hypervigilant all the time. I bought guns for every room in my house and carried one everywhere I went. I pulled a gun on a salesman who came to my house one night after dark. I was having dangerous outbursts over trivial issues. I was drinking heavily. I was overdoing prescription drugs for pain.” He began riding his motorcycle recklessly and found himself thinking about the night in Iraq when he put his 9mm pistol in his mouth. “I thought of my wife and couldn’t do it,” he said. 

Doctors diagnosed Dave with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs, which created a new set of problems. “They made me feel like a zombie,” he said. “I stopped being myself. Then I met some people who were smoking marijuana, so I started smoking. I noticed that the better quality marijuana I used, the less drinking I did and the less meds I needed. I would get a wonderful sense of well-being.” He thought he had discovered something new, but then he started reading about marijuana on the Internet and talking to other veterans. “Guess what? Everybody had the same story,” he said. Dave volunteered to become the veterans’ liaison for a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “My email exploded,” he said. “It’s amazing how many vets are using marijuana as an alternative to their meds.” 

Tom joined the military right out of high school, in 2000; earned the rank of staff sergeant; and placed first in his class at a leadership school for noncommissioned officers. His job specialty was photography, and when he deployed to Iraq, in 2007, his primary mission was to investigate and document IED blast sites—photographing vehicles, bodies, and other damage. “While it wasn’t Special Forces shoot-’em-up, it definitely had an impact,” he told me. “It affected how I slept. How I dreamt. How I saw the world.” It also left physical scars. As a result of being in close proximity to so many controlled detonations of IEDs, he developed internal scar tissue in his abdomen that caused nerve damage and left him with severe pain.

During a respite in Germany, where his wife was able to join him, doctors prescribed as many as eleven medications at once for his pain, insomnia, and anxiety. “Looking back on it now,” he said, “I think I was a full-blown drug addict, but I really did my damnedest to be a decent soldier.” In 2009 he volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan, where he worked as a combat camera asset for troops in three provinces. But his symptoms continued, and a year later doctors increased both the number and dosage of his meds. After returning to Germany in 2010, Tom set up a “kill room” in his garage, where he intended to hang himself. He put one length of chain over an I-beam and another around his neck, and he found a carabiner he could use to connect them when the time came. “I’m pretty meticulous when I plan shit,” he explained. One afternoon, when he was staring up at the chain and wondering how he would look hanging there for his wife to find, a buddy opened the garage door. “He kind of flipped out. He asked me what I was doing and why,” he said. That was when his friend offered him a joint. “That evening, I went outside and smoked it. My wife was upset with me, but I went upstairs and immediately fell asleep for the first time in a long while.”

Tom began to smoke every day until he was snared by a random drug test, which cost him a stripe. After a torturous few months that included surgery to remove some of his damaged nerves, he was discharged in March 2012. Back in Texas, both he and his wife found stable jobs. He learned where to buy marijuana and experimented with strains and dosages until he found what worked best for both his pain and his PTSD. “The first thing I do when I get home from work,” he said, “is take a couple of tugs on my vaporizer and, boom, I’m great. I’m ready to play with my

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