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VA Avoiding Research is Bullshit

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The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) won’t be conducting any marijuana research into the benefits of the plant due to fear of being caught by federal law, or so it implies.

Specifically, the research would be supporting the cause of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain. However, Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary David Shulkin, said the VA’s ability research medical marijuana is limited by the fact the drug is federally illegal. A letter by ten Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have asked the department to develop their research, but it was denied by the VA, Washington Post reports.

“For several years the American Legion has been pressing the federal government to remove cannabis from Schedule I of Controlled Substances Act so that medical investigators could research the drug and its efficacy in treating Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, chronic pain and other illnesses that affect veterans,” Joe Plenzler, Director of Media Relations for the American Legion, told The Cannabist by phone.

Currently, medical research into the benefits of marijuana is dampened by federal law due to marijuana classified as a Schedule 1 drug along with substances like heroin. Nevertheless, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said research is not restricted, and there must be proof determined through research the drug is actually benefiting veterans.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the House committee’s ranking member, said in a statement: “VA’s response not only failed to answer our simple question, but they made a disheartening attempt to mislead me, my colleagues and the veteran community in the process.”  He said a letter will be sent to Shulkin again for clarification.

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Mike Tyson Launches Weed Ranch for Vets

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Posh Marijuana from the legendary boxer, Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson, former heavyweight champ, has started his own cannabis resort called “Tyson Holistic” or the Tyson Ranch. The primary focus for Tyson Holistic is taking care of military veterans, along with education programs for the emerging cannabis industry.

Twenty acres of the property will include a hydro-feed plant and supply store, extraction facility, edible factory, “glamping” campgrounds and cabins, and amphitheater, reported The Blast. Besides cultivating and producing marijuana, Tyson also plans to carry out medical research on marijuana. He will also open a Tyson Cultivation School, to educate people on how to properly grow weed and create their own strains.  He has already trademarked a name called, “Tyson Mark Genetics,” to be used for the ranch.

Being an advocate for marijuana, Tyson found an underdeveloped 40-acre plot of land in California city which lies in the desert about 60 miles southwest of Death Valley National Park. It is located near Edwards Air Force Base. He is not alone in the endeavor and  has joined forces with businessmen Robert Hickman, Jay Strommen and also California City Mayor Jennifer Wood. The Tyson Ranch opened on January 1st, along with the California recreational market.

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Jon Downing, Part 4: Talking To Veterans Is Difficult, and It’s Not Your Fault

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Let us, for the moment, hit pause on the tale of Jon Downing. Before we can discuss Jon’s homecoming, we will need to establish some perspective. To this end, Part Four shall serve as an interlude. Try to set aside what you thought you knew about post-traumatic stress disorder. Most veterans, as they reintegrate, will experience a sense of social disconnect, wether they were in combat or not. These veterans are not necessarily damaged. They are simply different.

If you have ever felt uncomfortable talking to a veteran, rest assured that you are not alone. It is not supposed to be easy, and most of the friction is primarily due to conditions well beyond your control. To name just a few of these conditions: Is the nation at war? Are we fighting for our survival? Is there a military draft in effect? Circumstances change, and circumstances matter. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. An automatic response to a veteran – be it anything from praise to contempt – can do more harm than good.

Thankfully, making significant progress on this issue won’t require any controversial legislation or exorbitant public funding. Through a little awareness, civil-military relations can improve.

If a prophet exists today in the genre of civil-military affairs, it is Sebastian Junger. He is an acclaimed author of non-fiction – he wrote The Perfect Storm, back in the mid-1990s – and he has since spent decades overseas in a variety of conflict zones as a war reporter. His latest publication, Tribe, is a short book, but it packs a punch.

Author Sebastian Junger

As civilians, we’ve been quick and eager to attribute PTSD to roadside bombs and sucking chest wounds. Junger takes an alternative approach. He consults what are, in actuality, quite basic principles in sociology and evolutionary biology. Drawing upon the testimony of experts in these fields, he reaches a very different conclusion from what we’ve all been told.

History offers endless examples of civilizations in conflict, and Junger mines them for clues. He begins in the 1800s. As American settlers advanced westward, they were somewhat puzzled by the difficulties of cross-cultural assimilation. Captive natives living amongst the pioneers would, somewhat naturally, flee the comforts of large settlements to rejoin their tribes. White settlers who were captured by natives, on the other hand, were far less predictable.

Some whites refused to leave the tribes. Others, once they were repatriated, would attempt to escape, and return to native life. Junger is careful not to romanticize the era, but rudimentary bonds of communal living seemed to have had a strong effect. (For a gripping account of this particular subject, pick up S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of The Summer Moon)

During and following World War II, a large percentage of Americans served their country – either directly, through the armed forces, or indirectly, through the workforce back home. Once the collective ills of war and depression were vanquished, Americans proceeded in lockstep to tackle the issues of industrial expansion, job creation, housing and education.

Why don’t we see that level of cooperation today? In a cover story for the Atlantic two years ago, writer James Fallows offered one obvious reason: While nearly 10% of the entire US population was on active military duty following the second world war, only three-quarters of 1% of our population had served in Iraq or Afghanistan in the previous 14 years. Fallows and others, like Robert Kaplan, have argued convincingly that such statistical disparities make war-fighting and foreign policy alone extremely difficult. Both Fallows and Kaplan have sounded solid warnings about defense policy, and how far away from the voting booth it continues to drift.

In Tribe, Junger is more concerned with psychology, and the hardships that veterans encounter on a personal, day-to-day basis. Today’s soldiers experience the glue of shared living and shared sacrifice in a way that compares similarly to other soldiers across history. But when they come home they are all separated, and many land inside cities and towns in which they are unlikely to interact with any other veterans at all. The times have changed, too. The country is divided politically now. Wealth inequality is staggeringly high, and the job market is fiercely competitive.

Without this historical context, America’s PTSD figures make little to no sense. As combat deaths have gone down over the course of the past century, for instance, disability claims and documented psychiatric cases among veterans in America have gone way, way up. This is surely due, in part, to a better understanding of “shell shock”, as well as to – unfortunately – problems involving waste and fraud. But the story, as Junger explains it, is more complicated than that.

“Even the Israeli military—with mandatory national service and two generations of intermittent warfare—has by some measures a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent,” he notes. Anthropological evidence is presented as well. Disability claims would be one thing, but an epidemic of depressed and struggling soldiers like Jon Downing, within any warring nation, would be a cause for concern. What we are witnessing in America today is quite unprecedented.

Often, a wider lens will lead to feelings of helplessness. As it reveals new glimpses of powerful influences and variables – many of which may have previously gone unnoticed – historical context will, concurrently, proffer whispers of fate and inevitability. When we view our history in terms of tectonic shifts in the social landscape, the results will begin to seem, to a certain extent, predetermined.

“I’m almost convinced that in order to fix this,” one intelligent veteran once told me, after finishing Junger’s book, “America needs to just get involved in another world war.” This is a fairly common critique of Junger’s book. But progress begins with questions, and we have more answers today than we did when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, thanks in large part to Junger.

There are many reasons why civilians and veterans have trouble communicating. They each derive, in some form or another, from the politics, culture, and geography of the United States. We can’t re-engineer the macro-economic and geo-political events that got us here, but two small rules will still make a big difference.

Jon Downing, center, with friends

Rule #1: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

Knowing what we now know about PTSD – or, rather, acknowledging what we still don’t know – should make communication a bit less tense. Post-traumatic stress may be common, but it is helpful to consider the range of factors from which it may have evolved. Instead of upsetting veterans, your interest or curiosity into what they went through may indeed be helping them.

Only around 10% of active American service-members have ever seen combat, and only a fraction of those soldiers have witnessed anything truly horrible. Those particular veterans will, almost certainly, be capable of side-stepping or omitting any details that they aren’t comfortable discussing. You will find that this minority of combat veterans will typically apologize to you, for losing their composure, before you have the chance to apologize to them for prying.

Rule #2: Don’t Be So Nice

Most soldiers are anything but delicate. Genuine appreciation is no crime, but hollow or excessive gratitude sends a very different message. By now, most veterans can tell the difference. For the average, thoughtful American civilian, Rule #2 will be easy, and may even come as a relief.

Certain corporations and politicians, however, may resist Rule #2, for they have been most responsible for creating and exploiting our current climate of enthusiastic adoration. It is wise, as always, to remain skeptical of anyone who stands to benefit personally or financially from charity or goodwill.

All of this is directly relevant to Jon Downing’s story. Following his deployments to Iraq, Jon felt like a different person. Like many other warriors, Jon attempted to mask his injuries. As long as Jon was willing to erode mind and body in service to the federal government, our politicians gave Jon a role, and gave him a voice.

As a veteran, Jon appeared to have benefited briefly from his use of marijuana. The veteran community has made strides, since then, on this issue. As early as 2015, however, Washington wasn’t listening. Hesitation on the part of some politicians to sanction and support the legalized distribution of a new drug was perhaps, to a small extent, understandable. As a therapy, it was still untested (mainly because many of those same politicians refused to allow testing).

But our politicians aren’t fools. If they were afraid of medical marijuana in 2015, then they should have been terrified of pills like klonopin and oxycodone, long before that. There’s your red flag for hollow support.

Prescription pills became a deadly part of Jon’s new life as an Army veteran. We’ll talk about that new life, in Part 5.

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The Tale of Jon Downing, Part 3: Combat

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“People sing about victory, about lib­eration….They’re wrong. Who won and who lost is not a question. In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”

Bao Ninh, former foot soldier in the North Vietnamese Army

 

Nobody had a better seat than Jon Downing as his convoy traversed the dusty streets and alleyways of Al-Kut, Iraq. It was now 2007. As Americans were learning about “the surge,” Jon was living the surge.

As he bounced along in the gun turret of his team’s lead vehicle, Jon scanned for threats, his eyes darting left and right, up and down. His hands were wrapped tightly around the grips of the Browning 50-caliber machine gun in front of him, his thumbs balanced gently over the trigger.

His team was rolling in tandem with another small unit of elite Iraqi police. Emblazoned upon their vehicles and uniforms – both American and Iraqi alike – were contours and images of scorpions. Similar to the bald eagle in the United States, the scorpion inspires feelings of pride amongst soldiers across the arid expanses of southern Asia.

Their trucks were all speeding, faster than normal. They were responding to a distress call, and they were bracing for another firefight.

Jon was standing out of the roof of his Humvee, his head and torso exposed, when they were ambushed. Insurgents initiated fire with at least three rocket-propelled grenades, or “RPG’s.”  One round raced over their heads, and another landed wide by about 50 feet. The third round slammed into the side of Jon’s truck. In an instant, they were pinned down.

Less than a year earlier, when Jon had met his team in Kentucky, he had been told to literally fuck off. His friends laugh about it now, which is a good indication of how quickly they all warmed to Jon. In the end, it’s always easier to laugh at people you like.

Working, sleeping, eating and breathing in such close proximity to your teammates, the new guy has every opportunity to ruin it for himself. Even in training – especially in training, sometimes – as guys run out of dry clothes, run out of food, and as they’re dividing that last pie-slice of Copenhagen into fourths, all pretenses expire. Your slightest imperfections have nowhere to hide, and your true character is on full display.

“He definitely wasn’t the quiet type,” says Chris Moore,* Jon’s Team Sergeant at the time. “He was cocky, but he was genuine.”

If you’re not a good soldier – or a good person, for that matter – your quirks and deficiencies will be used against you. But if you are a good soldier, they’ll probably become what your teammates love about you the most.

“Jon was high energy,” recalls Jim Stevenson, another former teammate. “I used to call him ‘Turbo’.”

Toward the end of 2006, Jon’s team began prepping hard for Al-Kut. During the final two weeks of December, most soldiers are typically granted leave, or what the Army refers to as “Christmas Exodus.” But as they primed to deploy, Jon’s team had no time to waste. They spent almost every day training, dawn to dusk. They knew exactly where they were headed.

Another one of Jon’s teammates, Ben Smith, recalls vividly the focus, and intensity, of that moment. “I remember our Team Sergeant telling us, ‘Guys, we’re going to hell’”, says Ben. “Other soldiers were all at home, with their families,” he says. “I remember being out on the range, running night-fire exercises, until eleven-fifteen, eleven-thirty at night.”

Tired and hungry, Jon still managed to make his team laugh, but he switched to cool and calm when it mattered. Heavy, automatic weapons can and will malfunction. Jon could repair and reload the 50 cal. blindfolded. He was a deadly bird, and the turret was his nest.

By the time he departed for Iraq, his teammates had clearly made up their minds about Jon. “We wanted him there,” says Chris Moore. “We wanted him in that turret.”

If you indulge in the occasional action movie, then you know how an RPG looks, but you probably don’t know how it fires. On screen, the tulip-shaped, explosive rounds are depicted sailing through the air in what could accurately be described as slow-motion. However, these are, in fact, rockets, and not flare guns. Jon’s convoy was traveling through an urban environment, and they started taking fire from distances as close as 30 meters. Jon probably felt the RPG before he saw it, or heard it.

David Harris, another Green Beret weapons specialist currently recovering at Walter Reed Hospital from wounds he received from an RPG, explains what Jon might have seen. “Unless you spot the shooter as he’s getting set, there’s no warning at that range,” he says. “I did have some warning. We were in a friendly environment, and my driver noticed the guy in front of us, noticed his movements. He asked us, ‘Why is that guy walking so weird?’”

David was in the back seat of an armored SUV. He remembers eating snacks from an MRE, as his driver started talking. He was able to duck his head slightly, before the RPG round burst through the windshield and exploded in the trunk behind him. He survived, miraculously. He can recall being combative, a few moments after the blast, as his teammates were dragging him out of the vehicle.

“I asked them, ‘Why are you grabbing me?,” he says. “They told me to stay still, because my head was bleeding, from the explosion. I was like, ‘What explosion?’”

Insurgents in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, are physically small and frail men. They often fight in robes and sandals, and they are virtually all – to a man – malnourished. They are also, in many cases, fanatical. American grunts know that they might die. The most lethal and effective insurgents know exactly when they are going to die, sometimes down to the hour, and the minute.

Amidst recent quagmires – in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan – there is an instinct among people back home to attribute failure to politics or motives. We easily lose sight of certain, fundamental truths about warfare. Big armies make for big targets. Successful insurgents might be crazy, by our standards, but they are not stupid. They are precise, and methodical. America doesn’t fight big wars anymore, because small wars are the only way to beat us.

Standing out of the roof-hatch of his convoy’s lead Humvee, Jon was practically a sitting duck. The role, however, was a privilege, and not a punishment. After enough time in combat, everyone wants that job. Chris Moore, originally a medic by training, was Jon’s Team Sergeant. Jon followed Chris’ orders. “Every now and then I would tell Jon to get back in the truck,” Chris says. “It’s my turn now.”

Bravery explains part of it. Emerging from a turret takes balls, and there was certainly no shortage of testicular fortitude on Jon’s team. But balls, as an explanation, would be incomplete.

“Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s ageless expression, originated from his story about warfare, and for good reason. Back in 2007, well-designed and well-positioned improvised explosive devices were making confetti of American military vehicles. Some soldiers were scavenging through garbage piles, and welding scrap metal to the exterior walls of their trucks. The Pentagon paid attention, eventually. Gun trucks and personnel carriers got bigger, and stronger. But so did roadside bombs.

In the turret, Jon was vulnerable, but he could at least take an inventory of his surroundings, and engage his opponents in an instant. Inside many of these vehicles, soldiers might have been safe, but they had no idea what was going on around them. As armor got thicker, and windows got smaller, soldiers in the most aggressive units started finding ways to poke their heads and arms out of their trucks, through doors or hatches. They had been drilled in the importance of situational awareness, and then stuffed into what felt like a bank vault on wheels.

…………………………

Jon’s Team Sergeant, Chris, was sitting shotgun when the third RPG round hit the truck. What happened immediately following the blast is still a blur to Chris, due to what was almost certainly a concussion. “My ears were blown out,” he says. “I had bad headaches for weeks, months after that fight.”

What Chris remembers first, as he regained his senses inside the truck, was the 50 cal., roaring to life overhead.

“Jon was on the gun somehow, engaging them,” says Chris. “That’s the first thing I remember.”

To this day, it’s hard for Jon’s teammates to explain how he could have maintained consciousness – let alone composure – in that turret. Jon was fortunate that he lived. His team was fortunate that he lived. The ensuing firefight lasted between two and three hours. None of Jon’s teammates were killed, or grievously injured. They credit Jon with keeping them safe that day, but also point to that attack as one of worst the hits Jon’s head and body ever took.

The ambush was neither the first nor the last time Jon would perform under those conditions. One difficulty, in researching Jon’s story, is the honest inability of his teammates to differentiate one firefight from another. There were simply too many of them.

They routinely fought house-to-house, and door-to-door. They travelled with a special operations liaison from the Air Force, and called in airstrikes frequently. Sometimes help arrived from a helicopter or attack aircraft, right over their heads. Sometimes it arrived from very high altitudes – from bombers that Jon couldn’t see or hear. But regardless, the bombs kept falling. Jon was engulfed in destruction.

Had he been seriously injured, Jon would have been well taken care of. The story of David, the other Green Beret, at Walter Reed, is a good demonstaration of how far military trauma care has evolved.

His medics administered ketamine, soon after David was pulled from the SUV. The most advanced Special Operations Forces medics are favoring ketamine now, over morphine or fentanyl. Opioids, like morphine, depress blood pressure and respiratory drive. Although ketamine has amnestic, profound analgesic, and dose-dependent anesthetic actions, it will – simultaneously – stimulate the cardiovascular system as well, which is helpful to combat medics when their patients are losing blood. (On a side note, this incredibly powerful and psychoactive drug is classified as “Schedule 2” by the federal government, below Marijuana, which remains “Schedule 1.”)

Ketamine deletes memory, but in David’s case a shattered skull would have all but guaranteed that anyway. David doesn’t remember the flight medics working on him inside the Chinook. He doesn’t remember the surgical teams at Bagram Air Force Base, or Landsthul, Germany. He woke up three weeks later, in Washington, D.C.. He will continue to require, and receive, a regimented schedule of surgery, therapy, and medication.

The American military can save lives, without a doubt. But can we, as a nation, preserve those lives? Jon was not mortally wounded in Iraq. When he got home, it took years before his friends understood what was wrong. The military didn’t necessarily abandon Jon. The VA didn’t abandon Jon. But is it possible that, rather than pills or disability benefits, what veterans like Jon need is more simple? We’ll explore that question, in the next installment.

* For the purposes of telling this story, all the names of current and former service-members have been changed

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The Tale of Jon Downing, Part 2: Becoming a Green Beret

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Suicide rates among war veterans are making headlines, but interpreting the numbers can be difficult. In American society at large, suicide is far more common among older aged men – men who may have served in Vietnam, for instance. The figures tend to overlap, and organizing all the data in a precise manner – using age, income, military history, and other predisposing factors – has been challenging. Jon Downing endured violent combat in Iraq, and it can be tempting to simply attribute his death to post-traumatic stress, but it’s not that easy.

Unlike Jon, most soldiers don’t see combat overseas – never even fire their weapons. And yet they are deposited as statistics, all the same, just like Jon was. Aside from a routine obituary posted by his funeral home, a web search for Jonathan Michael Downing yields next to nothing. He certainly had close relationships though, and people who cared for him deeply. He had a wife, and kids, whom he loved. He had a support system. He had doctors, and therapists. His pastor visited him in jail, to no avail, during the final two days he was alive.

How Jon slipped through the cracks is a complicated story. It will involve a number of elements, including war, combat, brain injuries, depression, pharmaceutical drugs, and medical marijuana. “Jon saved my life in Iraq,” one of his teammates told me, “more than once.” By spreading his story, perhaps we’ll help him save a few more.

Jon Downing, on the left, in training

If we want to understand today’s veterans, the story of Jon Downing is a fine place to start. And to understand Jon, we’ll have to begin in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The year was 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was erupting. Jon had already been serving in the Army as a mechanic for seven years when he volunteered for the Special Forces program. In preparation, he collected and submitted a plethora of paperwork, adding his name to a long list of applicants.

After receiving his orders, he packed his rucksack for Camp Mackall, a sprawling freehold of dense forestation and wilderness deep inside central North Carolina. During assessment and selection, Special Forces candidates audition anonymously. Jon removed the name-tapes from his uniforms, replaced them with a three-digit roster number, then gave it his all.

Certain details remain secretive, but the selection process can be roughly broken down into three phases. Phase one tests personal strength and endurance. You must complete a fixed number of push-ups and sit-ups within two minutes, for example. You must be able to shuffle-run twelve miles, wearing a forty-five pound rucksack, under an allotted time. Failure in any individual event results instantly in disqualification.

Phase two incorporates more psychology. Jon knew that a two mile run, during phase one, would end after two miles. Events during phase two had no end in sight, and they typically induced muscle failure, by design. The goal was to gauge Jon’s willpower. Phase two culminates in land navigation. Under ideal conditions, orienteering with a map and compass can be extremely frustrating. Getting lost is normal, at which point exasperation can easily exceed fatigue. Virtually all will wonder: “Will I ever find these fucking coordinates?!”

Jon set out at midnight, carrying his weapon and his forty-five pound rucksack. The use of roads or flashlights is strictly prohibited. The terrain at Camp Mackall is famous for its venous web of narrow stream beds, known as “draws” – all of which are covered and encased by a tight mesh of vines and thorns. During land navigation, draws are unavoidable, and often impenetrable. Jon may have wondered whether anyone would ever find him.

Successful completion of phases one and two may require semi-reckless levels of self-confidence, and stubbornness, from a candidate. By adding teamwork to the equation, phase three evaluates the ability of those candidates to work cooperatively. They are divided into small groups, and assigned physically exhausting tasks to which there are no obvious solutions. How will the stronger candidates treat the weaker candidates, under these circumstances? Instructors watch closely.

Jon passed every test. He proceeded to the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg – a massive Army installation adjacent to Fayetteville – where he spent the next eighteen months training. Jon and his classmates would return to Camp Mackall intermittently for courses in wilderness survival and small-unit tactics. They would stay for weeks or months at a time. Compared to his “audition,” these trips involved less food, less sleep, more stress, and much heavier rucksacks. During his time back in Fayetteville, Jon learned a foreign language, became a weapons specialist, and met Vanessa, his future wife.

Jon with his wife, Vanessa

In a popularity contest between branches, the Army would lose. The Navy and the Air Force control the seas and the skies with unrivaled precision, and as infantrymen the Marines are famously disciplined and deadly. Even among Special Operations Forces, the exclusivity and raw, carnal fortitude of the Navy SEALs are unmatched.

Judged on appearances, it only gets worse: If you believe that Army commercials are exciting, or that lime-green digi-cam looks cool, you may need your head examined. And an Army recruiter is standing by right now, to set that up for you! That’s the reality, in a nutshell: Without low standards, the Army would not be able to fulfill its dirty, scrappy role as the logistical and mechanical spine of the American military. The Army simply needs bodies.

In combat, of course, popularity contests are an afterthought. Titles and labels mean nothing to a SEAL team medic, for instance, when CH-47 Chinook helicopters arrive carrying Army flight surgeons. Titles and labels also mean nothing to Army Rangers when Air Force pilots in A-10 Warthogs descend below the cloud cover, and switch to guns. In this sense, the military is just like real life: Petty rivalries are a symptom of inactivity, and extreme posturing or pageantry may serve as covers for insecurity, or something worse.

As the largest branch, the Army does possess some advantages. Any massive organization will have access to massive pools of talent. As proof, consider the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, or perhaps the “Night Stalkers” of the 160th’s rotary air wing. You might also consider the Army’s elite Delta Force, but good luck with that – unlike SEALs, alumni tend not to write baby books, become life coaches, or run for office. (And here we are, right back at petty rivalries. That was quick.) For now, let’s consider the Green Berets.

Since the Vietnam War, America’s Special Operations Forces have evolved and expanded rapidly. In movies and media, the phrase “special forces team” has become synonymous with “professional hit squad,” but Green Berets are prepared to do more than fight. They deploy in “Alpha Teams,” which usually consist of twelve to fourteen soldiers, each soldier owning a specific skill set. Alpha Teams are trained to penetrate into hostile territory, and remain embedded for months. Through air power and sea power, wars are easy to start, but without smart troops on the ground, they are hard to win.

Alpha Teams specialize in what military strategists refer to as “force-multiplication.” While Green Berets are well trained in violence, violence is Plan B. Building rapport is Plan A. Green Berets don’t succeed as vigilantes, marauding through towns and villages. They learn foreign languages, and attempt to catalyze organic changes by forming alliances with indigenous forces. Operation Enduring Freedom, for example, was launched very quietly by a small number of Green Berets who, alongside Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, rode into battle against the Taliban on horseback. Through their success, the Army Special Forces Alpha Team became a model against which similar units in the Navy and the Marine Corps are now being measured.

Americans demand small footprints and big results from their military. In October, four American soldiers – two of whom were Green Berets – died when their unit was ambushed in Niger. At the time, there were certainly many American service-members who were unaware that Green Berets were even operating in Niger. There were also certainly many American civilians who were unaware that there was a country called Niger. Sometimes, The Pentagon prefers to keep it that way.

To describe the United States as an empire would be no exaggeration, and yet as citizens, we express little interest in foreign policy. An abiding faith in America’s role as a benevolent superpower helps keep us docile. For benign hegemony to work, the correct mixture of hard and soft power is required. Alpha Teams embody this principle. Discovering the perfect balance between violence and restraint may take a nation centuries. The Army taught Jon Downing in about a year and a half.

Throughout the Qualification Course, PTSD is something people rarely discuss. The training is thrilling and intense, and – during wartime especially – levels of pressure and anticipation run very high. Most soldiers, in this phase of their careers, would rather hide an injury or an illness than talk about it. When he graduated, Jon probably felt invincible.

But similar to graduations in many other settings, graduating from the Qualification Course can also be a humbling experience. One moment, you feel on top of the world, and the next, you’re pond scum again. Jon purchased and fitted his new beret. He bought his Special Forces “tab,” a tiny patch made of thread and velcro that, to students like Jon, had become equivalent to the Holy Grail. Once all the ceremonies were over, Jon packed his bags again and drove to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home to the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group. When he joined his new battalion, Jon had to start over in many ways.

It was now 2006. The American casualty rate in Iraq was near its peak. Jon met his new team at the airport, as they were returning home from a short deployment. Jon was on the flight line, in aviator sunglasses, looking cocky as hell. “Who the fuck is this guy?”, one of Jon’s future teammates thought to himself, after spotting Jon on the tarmac.

Jon approached his Team Sergeant, as soon as he was off the plane. “I’m your new Bravo,” Jon announced.

“You’re who?,” his Team Sergeant responded.

“I’m Jon. I’m on your team.”

“No you’re not,” said his Team Sergeant. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Jon’s friends and family have fond memories of that day. They still laugh, when they describe the scene. Jon may have felt differently about it at the time.

But he stuck around. Alpha Teams in 5th Group were deploying in and out of the Middle East at a rapid clip, and soon enough, Jon’s team was preparing to leave again. Jon was headed to Iraq.

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PTSD Treatment For Vets Driving Medical Marijuana Expansion

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ALBANY, New York — Support from veterans groups is helping knock down barriers and expand access to medical marijuana for vets in-need.

Just earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would sign legislation making his state the next to allow medical marijuana for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

That would make New York the 29th locale, the District of Columbia included, to cover PTSD with medical marijuana treatment, a list of jurisdictions that has grown twice as long in just two years.

According to the Associated Press, retired Marine Staff Sergeant Mark DiPasquale said the drug freed him from a raft of opioids, anti-anxiety medications and more that he was taking for migraines, PTSD and injuries sustained from duty, including a hard landing a dozen years ago in Iraq.

“I just felt like a zombie, and I wanted to hurt somebody,” he said.

DiPasquale said he felt his chronic symptoms, such as anxiety and insomnia, were relieved after marijuana use.

“Do I still have PTSD? Absolutely,” says the 42-year-old Rochester native.“But I’m back to my old self. I love people again.”

DiPasquale now heads the Veterans Cannabis Collective Foundation in Rochester, New York, which educates vets about cannabis treatment.

Medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, though licenses to produce the drug in liquid form started being granted in Texas this month for patients with severe epilepsy.

Many states are being pressured by veterans groups, including the 2.2 million-member, American Legion, to make medical marijuana legal due to veterans saying it has helped relieve anxiety and post-war symptoms of aggression and depression.

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The Tale of Jon Downing, U.S. Army Green Beret: Part 1

US, Chile SOF rifle range training exchange

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.

Jonathan Michael Downing, 32 – illustration Riley Miller

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.

 

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