By any modern standard, Jon Downing was a war hero, but sitting across from his doctor in that hospital room, trapped on all sides by sterile, white walls, he felt defeated. His doctor asked him to explain why he was there, but Jon struggled to find the right words. According to his wife, Vanessa, he had attempted to kill himself by overdosing on Klonopin, one of numerous medications he had been prescribed over the years. Jon hated all the pills. He told his doctor that he couldn’t really remember what had happened.
It was late October, 2015. Throughout the six days he spent at the Alvin C. York Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Tennessee, Jon’s moods were erratic. He would appear calm at one moment, and agitated the next. Back home, he admitted, he was crippled by feelings of guilt, regret, and survivor’s remorse. He would fixate upon memories from Iraq. “Do you ever feel like killing yourself?” his doctor asked. “All the time,” Jon replied.
Jon was not comfortable at the hospital. He would collect himself periodically, and insist that he was ready to leave. Reached via telephone, Vanessa expressed her doubts to his doctors. When her assessments of the situation conflicted with his own, Jon would storm out of the room and down the hallway, yelling, and cursing. He was unstable, and he did a poor job of hiding it. When he was admitted, Jon was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He kept his sunglasses on inside the hospital, to “prevent migraines.” It had been clear to his friends for a long time that Jon wasn’t the same.
Eventually, he was approved to leave. Vanessa agreed, reluctantly, and a plan was put together: Jon would taper off of some of his medications, and demonstrate his progress by reporting back to the hospital at regular intervals. Within a week, Jon was in police custody, again. On his third day in jail, Jon removed his shirt, tied it around his neck, and hung himself. Upon reaching him, paramedics worked furiously to maintain Jon’s oxygen saturation levels and restore his pulse, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was thirty-three years old. He left behind three kids.
It should come as no surprise to most Americans that there is a widening civil-military divide in our country, and if understanding the military as a civilian is hard, then understanding Special Operations Forces is harder. A lack of deference or recognition is not the problem. Operators are portrayed frequently as superheroes, and in some ways they truly are. In most ways, however, they’re just ordinary guys under extraordinary pressure. This isn’t Sparta. This isn’t a movie.
To be a veteran today is to know social awkwardness. For very good reasons, Americans have focused considerable attention upon things like combat injuries and traumatic stress – Jon Downing, for one, suffered from both. In order to appreciate the mixed emotions of today’s average veteran, however, it’s better to focus on America’s military history. In hindsight, World War II and Vietnam can serve, respectively, as models for what worked and what didn’t. The dilemma for today’s veterans could be described as being stuck somewhere in the middle.
During World War II, support for the war and for the troops was high. Americans shared the burden collectively, and everybody knew somebody with a war story. The war in Vietnam was much less popular. Draft dodging became routine, and as a result certain communities absorbed the costs of war at unequal levels. However, between the visceral realities of involuntary conscription and high casualties, civilians remained invested politically. Nobody could ignore Vietnam.
By incorporating different elements from both of those wars, the “War on Terror” feels like a contradiction. When soldiers like Jon Downing return home, they are handled with courtesy and respect. “Thank you for your service,” they hear, ad nauseam. Like the 1940’s, people seem to care. And yet, like the 1970’s, there’s the sense that many Americans are more comfortable making military service somebody else’s problem. Today’s recruits are drawn disproportionately from rural counties and military families. There is no war tax. It’s easy to support the troops when there are no consequences.
Jon Downing’s story is unique in many ways. As a Green Beret in Iraq, Jon experienced what few people ever will, and as a 50 cal. gunner on his team’s lead vehicle, he experienced what few Green Berets ever will. A daring faith in our volunteer military allows us all to tune out, and when appetites for sustained deployments of conventional forces are lost, we are increasingly relying upon Special Operations Forces to fill those gaps. They are spending more time abroad, while simultaneously assuming more risks and more responsibilities.
We’ve been conditioned over the last 16 years to trust in the sincerity of virtually any public tribute to veterans – whether it be a half-time show, photo-op, campaign rally or worthless discount. But patriotism has become its own currency. These days, you can’t quite trust anybody who attaches their name or their brand to the cause of veterans.
The Nectar focuses on issues related to cannabis, and we have a point of view. This will be, first and foremost, a story about Jon Downing, and the strange position in which other veterans like him are trapped. But any examination of Jon’s suicide would be incomplete without a discussion of medical marijuana.
Judging by the accounts of each one of his teammates, friends, and family members, Jon need not have been condemned to a cocktail of addictive prescription drugs. During the final year of his life, Jon effectively chose to stop taking his pills, and tried to control his symptoms using marijuana. For a few months, it appears to have worked remarkably well. According to friends and family, Jon resumed taking his medications in order to pass a pre-employment drug test, at which point everything spiraled out of control.
If these accounts are accurate, and there is no indication that they are not, it doesn’t mean that marijuana cures PTSD. It doesn’t mean that marijuana cures pain. But it does raise serious questions.
Some are straightforward. For instance, why won’t the federal government provide a logical explanation for marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 drug? Why won’t the federal government authorize hospitals or universities access to small amounts of marijuana for the purposes of medical research?
As you study Jon’s tale, one question leads to another. Is his story an illustration of the greater civil-military divide, an example of America’s unwillingness to see beyond lip service and lapel pins? Was it normal for someone in Jon’s condition to receive so many prescriptions for so many powerful medications?
Jon and his family lived in Tennessee’s 7th congressional district, represented by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn was recently the subject of national press coverage for her ties to the pharmaceutical industry, and her leading role in passing new legislation which will prevent the DEA from suspending large and suspicious commercial shipments of opioids within our own country. (To be clear, the DEA was not attempting to outlaw such shipments, only to delay them, and provide its agents enough time to properly investigate.) That Jon and Marsha may have shared a zip code would be a coincidence, not a conspiracy, but it will be educational, nonetheless.
We’ll attempt to answer these questions, along with many more, in subsequent installments.