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