Iraq War Veterans Turn to Marijuana for Managing PTSD Symptoms

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Jan. 25, 2012

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Within his first two weeks in Kuwait, his unit suffered the first fragging incident of the war, in which Hasan Karim Akbar tossed four grenades into three tents at the camp, killing an Army captain and injuring 15 other soldiers. That same night, Mays says, a British plane was shot down near their camp and a female soldier went AWOL in front of everyone. “She just walked away and she didn’t come back,” he says. “That made me realize how stressful this is for people. Because you just saw right there, someone who couldn’t handle what was going on around them. I don’t know what happened to her.”

Iraq was no different. Assigned to Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq and, as fate would have it, Philadelphia’s sister city, Mays worked as part of a maintenance company, and later as a prison guard. “Have you ever seen one of those post-apocalyptic movies where it’s five years later and everything’s gone horribly wrong?” he asks. “I always said [Mosul] was like that. Like Philly, if Philadelphia ever lost cable television and lost all power.” From there, he says, the entire tour was about survival.

Mays says that as soon as American troops seized control, Mosul turned into a wasteland. The police had been disbanded. The traffic lights didn’t work. Families retreated to their homes. “That’s what sucked about the no police thing and no traffic laws,” he says. “You’re bumper-to-bumper and you’re told to look everywhere for someone that can get you. I drove a lot in the beginning. It was always nerve-wracking to look around and know you can’t cover every spot. Just like you can’t drive through Center City [Philadelphia] and look at every side, 360 degrees, where people could attack you from.”

During an on-base training mission months later, in which he simulated guarding an Iraqi national, Mays had a flashback which almost ended in violence. “It was literally putting me back in that situation,” he says. “It was a matter of knowing the difference between training and real life … Legitimately, I knew I wasn’t in Iraq, but I didn’t understand why I was doing the mission where I was.” When he came to, he was being restrained by fellow soldiers. He didn’t immediately seek treatment, though, he just thought things were a bit off.

“At first, they thought the only people who got PTSD were rape victims,” Mays says, referring to the several decades it took the military, government and mental-health professionals to come to grips with the legitimacy of the disorder. “Then it was rape victims and Vietnam vets. But that was it. Then, they only saw PTSD as coming from a really bad situation, like [Iraqi city and spot of intense battle] Fallujah or something.” It was, therefore, tough to prove you had PTSD until an inevitable flashback or violent outbreak occurred.

He was scheduled to go back to Iraq in 2006, but was medically retired before it could happen. Shortly after he returned home in 2004, he attended a two-day seminar to prepare for re-entry into society—but that was the extent of the military’s assistance. After that, he was on his own. “The army teaches you to repress sickness of any kind,” Mays says. “Especially mental stuff.” So when he got back to Philadelphia, he remained suspicious of everyone around him, always ready for an attack. “I feel like I should be doing things like I did them over there [in Iraq],” he says. “But I’m not over there. I’m over here. Things should technically be different, but they’re not.” 

Herrera’s story differs from Mays’ in that she was never sent overseas by the military. She instead worked as a weather observer from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, communicating with pilots overseas, often to locate correct bombing sites. And even though she never pulled a trigger, today she feels just as guilty for her actions as if she had. “It was just work. Just another day at the office,” Herrera says. “You’re brainwashed to think about what you have to do to get your piece done, and you’re not thinking about all the collateral damage or actually thinking about what you’re doing … Like [the video game] Call of Duty, they’re just pushing buttons on a remote, right? Well, that’s what I was doing: Looking at satellites, telling people where to drop their bomb. There’s a team that drops a bomb. It’s not just one person.”

After leaving the Air Force, Herrera got a job lobbying for Boeing. That’s when the PTSD really began kicking in. “It was like the rage wants to come out of you. I’d be sitting in meetings and I wanted to punch people in the face. I wanted to jump outside of myself. I wanted to scream at people,” she says. “I used to literally go into [an empty] office, which was right next door to mine, close the door and scream for 15 minutes. That was probably the first realization that I had a serious problem and I needed to solve it.”

Now, she says, she plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Delaware that will cater to veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to a medical treatment facility, she says, she’s looking to create a space for veterans to live communally, and hopes to offer yoga and potlucks.

Miller, the advocate for New Jersey For Medical Marijuana, says medical marijuana may not save every returning veteran suffering from PTSD—it probably won’t save most of them. But the least the country should do is allow testing to see if it can have a positive reaction to the condition.

The VA has gotten more funding for PTSD treatments, and has been increasing its public awareness of the disorder. Even President Obama has put a focus on the issue.

While recognition and treatment of PTSD is still relatively new to the American military and populace, research shows the disorder is responsible for an attempted suicide by a veteran once every 80 minutes. On a recent Saturday night inside the Moonstone Arts Center in the Gayborhood, hordes of military fatigue jackets are draped across the backs of creaky steel chairs. It’s the launch of Warrior Writers’ third book of art and writing, created exclusively by war veterans. Based out of Philadelphia, this project-turned-organization, provides an art, writing and social sanctuary for returning veterans. And most of the vets in attendance are here to read a contribution to the collection. One writer, Michael Day, reveals to the audience that he’d been garnering the courage to commit suicide off his balcony one night when Lovella Calica, the founder of Warrior Writers, texted him, asked him to contribute to the collection, and unknowingly changed his mind about jumping. “I am afraid I am going to die alone, who is going to want to be with me inside my messed up head,” he reads, “and dealing with the horrible things I think about myself.”

Mays is in the audience. “That was a lot to take in,” he says, adding that he just tries to take it as it comes. “I try to be realistic about the situation. It’s very hard to retrain your brain after it’s been put in its own way … The person I grew up to be in the Army was very good for that situation. But I’m out of the Army and not all of that is acceptable.”

In the meantime, he’s keeping busy, working with Warrior Writers and the Mural Arts Program on a veterans mural that will go up in West Philadelphia. He’s also attending the Community College of Philadelphia, where he’s studying for a career as an engineer. To him, it’s a career that makes sense PTSD-wise. “It’s a job that doesn’t involve people,” he says. “And a lot of the people who are in it are, oddly enough, very anti-social.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Duncan20903 said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 10:00AM

“It's amazing that there's anyone skeptical of the assertion that cannabis can help people to learn to forget.”

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2. malcolm kyle said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 11:23AM

“Prohibition bears many strong and startling similarities to Torquemada­’s inquisition­, it’s supporters are servants of tyranny and hate who’s sole purpose is to make the rest of us suffer their putrid legacy of incalculable waste and destruction.

Prohibition engendered black market profits are obscenely huge. Remove this and you remove the ability to bribe or threaten any government official or even whole governments. The argument that legalized regulation won’t severely cripple organized crime is truly bizarre. Of course, the bad guys won’t just disappear, but if you severely diminish their income, you also severely diminish their power. The proceeds from theft, extortion, pirated goods etc. are a drop in the ocean compared to what can be earned by selling prohibited/unregulated drugs in a black market estimated to be worth 400,000 million dollars. The immense illegal capital, gifted through prohibition, is what gives these criminal cartels and terrorists power. Power that has allow”

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3. Joseph Tolman said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 11:44AM

“The creed of the prohibitionist: "Use the soldiers while you can, when they no longer serve your purpose, screw 'em they're just criminals!"”

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4. Paula B. Shore, D.O. said... on Jan 25, 2012 at 06:42PM

“Marijuana not being legal, is perhaps the biggest hipocracy of the FDA and DEA. Hundreds, if not thousands of drugs are released for sale, long before there is actual proof of doing no harm. How many pharmaceuticals are ripped from the market as they start to destroy and kill people??? Marijuana has NEVER killed anyone. It doesn't destroy your liver or your kidneys. It prevents dementia and tumor growth, even lung tumors caused by cigarette smoking. How many people get behind the wheel on a daily basis, while using opiates (Vicodin,Norco, etc.) without being threatened with a felony conviction, unless they are driving erratically. Marijuana use does not cause this. If anything, people drive more slowly and carefully. The reason it's not legal by now, is that Obama has allowed the pharmaceutical companies to rule his world, so now, we're stuck with this too.

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5. bob aveyard said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 04:21AM

“MARIJUANA= LESS VICODIN,EVERYBODY KNOWS IT.THAT'S THE RUB BIG PHARM SPENDING BIG BUX TO DELAY LEGALIZATION TILL THEY HAVE IT IN THEIR INVENTORY AT PREMIUM PRICES.OCCUPY TILL IT'S DONE!”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 03:16PM

“the gov. wants soliders to risk their lives fighting in bullshit wars and then when those soldiers come home with mental issues, the gov. does nothing to help them.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:26PM

“My son has PTSD and a TBI. He has short term memory loss from the TBI. He smoke pot everyday almost all day.It does help the PTSD but it does no good for the short term memory loss. DAMN WAR!!”

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8. Elaine Roach said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:34PM

“Can't blame this one on Obama...remember the "War on drugs?" Hmmmm. Long before Obama, who is struggling to loosen the hold that big corps, big pharmas and lobbyists of all breeds have on the government. Write letters, send telegrams, make phone calls, email, whatever, to communicate to your Reps (even though the House is a JOKE), Senators, Governors, etc. Make your opinions heard!”

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9. CombatVetIraq said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:38PM

“Medical marijuana has been the most helpful medication I've found for my TBI and PTSD symptoms. Hands down.”

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10. intheknow said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 06:44PM

“So they're suddenly discovering what Vietnam vets have known for 40 years?”

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11. Vetof05-06 said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 08:11PM

“As an Iraq Veteran myself. I find myself in this same situation. To bad my state doesn't recognize it at all. The FEDS and FDA need to realize that people need it for medical purposes and not "just" recreational use.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 08:23PM

“although i compleetly agree with the legalization of marijuana, the use to help and cope with PTSD symptoms is irrational. it is known that chemicals in marijuana can loosen certain repressors in the brain, thus allowing the users PTSD symptoms to actually increase. this is, obvisoly, not in all cases, but it can happen. i mean, whatever works i guess, but i just know that one of my friends who has pretty bad PTSD has a tendency to go through intense anxiety attacks due to their PTSD symptoms after smoking, but it doesnt happen all the time, depends on the mood the user is in before smoking.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 10:22PM

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorders can happen to anyone other than post pregnant women and veterans. The only reason why we hear a lot about it is cause the media focuses their attention on veterans. However, there are more Americans suffering from PTSD than Americans. Quite a few traumatic things happened in my life including recently. And I find that it really does work for me, however dealers and middle men charge so much that I have to go without. These dealers take advantage, that's why I feel they should legalize it for medical purposes. I'd be happier smoking than drinking alcohol and possibly killing someone. Alcohol cause depression, liver problems, poisoning, dementia. Most of the time you get so drunk that you fall and break a leg or hit your head. Marijuana does the opposite. It actually does more good and no bad. What really needs to happens is for all Americans come together and take over Washington. It happens in other countries why not here.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 10:22PM

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorders can happen to anyone other than post pregnant women and veterans. The only reason why we hear a lot about it is cause the media focuses their attention on veterans. However, there are more Americans suffering from PTSD than Americans. Quite a few traumatic things happened in my life including recently. And I find that it really does work for me, however dealers and middle men charge so much that I have to go without. These dealers take advantage, that's why I feel they should legalize it for medical purposes. I'd be happier smoking than drinking alcohol and possibly killing someone. Alcohol cause depression, liver problems, poisoning, dementia. Most of the time you get so drunk that you fall and break a leg or hit your head. Marijuana does the opposite. It actually does more good and no bad. What really needs to happens is for all Americans come together and take over Washington. It happens in other countries why not here.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2012 at 11:05PM

“Anonymous #12, your friend needs an indica strain, it sounds like they got too much sativa. Some pot makes anxiety worse but there are so many different kinds.
.........
Elaine Roach, oh yes we can too blame Obama. Legalization has been the most popular question in his "Town Hall" meetings and YouTube events, and 9 TIMES NOW he has ignored or derided the question. He is in a place to help, he said in his campaign he wanted it brought to the table, and now he's the one shutting the gates in our faces.”

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16. havok said... on Jan 27, 2012 at 06:18AM

“As a disabled combat veteran i have to use marijuana to control pain, medication side effects and anxiety. If i didn't i would more then likely be dead. Until the medical/drug companies are made non profit and the FTC laws are changed, herbal cures will never be recognized because greed rules this nation. sad but true. My little brother has to use weed to control his Multiple sclerosis that he has had for 22 years now, it is the only thing besides massive doses of steroids, that make him human on a daily basis. SHAME ON THE FDA AND DRUG COMPANIES, MAY THEY REAP WHAT THEY SOW!”

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17. Anonymous said... on Jan 27, 2012 at 01:35PM

“My name is John and I have been suffering from PTSD for ten years now. I have tried many different therapies, including EMDR, hypnosis and a multitude of medications. I have been hospitalized 6 times in the past 9 years for PTSD and suicidal ideation. I write about my struggles on my blog and I try to describe exactly what it is like to be suffering from PTSD.

You can read what it is like for someone with PTSD here.

http://veteransguide.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-is-it-like-to-have-ptsd.html”

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18. terry696 said... on Jan 30, 2012 at 02:11PM

“I am a Nam Vet with a CIB, many other medals, and PTSD and it only took me from 1993 when I 1st put in for PTSD to 2008 for the VA to give me a 100% ratting and I know that a little med pot helps Ohio will have my volt and any help that I can give”

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19. Anonymous said... on Jan 11, 2014 at 07:57PM

“Does anyone know of any support groups for Iraq Veterans in Philadelphia Pa? Trying to help a loved one who has PTSD and he refuses to talk to anyone. Any advice,”

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