“There is only one thing that has made me, me, and that’s medical marijuana,” said Josh Frey, a Marine who fought in the Battle of Fallujah.
Two combat veterans, and a deceased veteran’s mother, implored lawmakers and the VA to begin researching the medical benefits of marijuana at a press conference Thursday, on Capitol Hill. Their heart-wrenching stories of injuries sustained on the battlefield, and experiences on what’s known as the “combat cocktail,” a combination of powerful psychiatric and narcotic drugs, were told in intimate detail.
Here are their stories:
Jeanine is the mother of a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, John Lutz. As an infantryman, John served in dangerous places such as Ramadi, Iraq, and in Helmand province, Afghanistan, where in 2009, he took part in Operation Khanjar, the largest assault since the Battle of Fallujah in 2004.
14 of his fellow Marines were lost from his battalion in the operation, and like many veterans, the war followed him home where he sought help for his post-traumatic stress.
“It is our hope that the story of my son, who was lost because of prescribed pharmaceuticals, will open your hearts and minds to research cannabis—the most safe and effective treatment for our veterans today,” said Jeanine.
John joined the Marine Corps in 2006 and deployed twice during his five years of service, once each to Iraq and Afghanistan. When he returned from Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. He was then treated with what is known as the “combat cocktail.”
“Things were still not working, and in June 2010 they gave my son klonopin, a benzodiazepine,” said Jeanine. “Within a week, Johnny attempted suicide.”
He was found just as he stopped breathing, and his life was saved. On his chart, doctors noted not to prescribe klonopin, but the doctors never told him.
Three months later, John was inpatient at a hospital in Virginia for treatment for post-traumatic stress, and again, he was prescribed benzodiazepines. Three days later, John was again suicidal.
Since he was inpatient, the doctors were able to stop the pharmaceutical treatment, but again, doctors did not tell John directly. “They left my son leaving to believe that he wanted to kill himself because of his own free will,” said Jeanine.
John was medically retired in November of 2011, and was on 18 different medications. “He realized he wasn’t living his life, he was a zombie, he wasn’t leaving the house,” Jeanine continued. “He was an empty shell.”
He made the decision to get off the drugs, quitting cold-turkey. “Johnny blossomed, he flourished,” said Jeanine. During the summer of 2012, Jeanine and Johnny traveled to Colorado and Tennessee to go white water rafting.
“There was joy in the Lutz house again,” said Jeanine. “He was alive.”
At the end of the summer in 2012, his post-traumatic stress was triggered, and he became depressed.
On Jan. 1, he instructed his mother to lock up the morphine, the only drug he was still taking, and to lock up the guns. “In my son’s mind, he thought his two previous attempts was something he wanted to do, he didn’t know it was because of the pharmaceuticals,” said Jeanine,“he was terrified, and doing everything in his power to stay alive.”
On Jan. 4 2013, he went to the VA in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He told medical staff he had suicidal thoughts, and that his mother was controlling his prescriptions. “Huge red flag!” said Jeanine. “How many chances did my son have for his life to be saved?”
Instead, the VA gave Johnny Klonopin. He then went to a different doctor for his back pain. He was prescribed 90 tablets of morphine.
Morphine and benzodiazepines, like klonopin, are never prescribed together, it was a massive miscommunication.
“Eight days later my sons was dead,” said Jeanine.
Jeanine has since started a foundation and works with veterans. “I know what works and what doesn’t work,” said Jeanine. “I know that cannabis does work for a lot of veterans.”
“I stand in front of you today, as the voice of every veteran that is buried because of prescribed pharmaceuticals. I stand here as the voice for every veteran that is incarcerated because of the prescribed pharmaceuticals.”
“Cannabis isn’t an entry drug, it’s an exit drug,” she said. “We must not be content with this continuous conversation, we must act swiftly and decriminalize cannabis, and get it rescheduled now.”
Josh is a Marine that was among one of the very last wounded in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, the largest urban combat operation since the Vietnam War. Josh was in a six-week battle that involved vicious street-to-street fighting against an entrenched enemy that left nearly 100 American soldiers and Marines dead, and 560 wounded.
Josh, a medical marijuana advocate from Tampa, Fla. said “we went into Fallujah in 2004, on my birthday, November 8th.”
“To turn 28 years old doing that kind of fighting was some serious heavy lifting.”
As a Mk 19 grenade launcher gunner, Frey said “I’ve had enough combat for all of us to last a life time. I don’t wish it upon anybody.”
Josh has been quiet about his medical marijuana use, but claims that if it wasn’t for medical marijuana he wouldn’t be alive.
When he returned home after he was shot, he took it upon himself to use marijuana medically, while he was still in uniform. “They busted me down, tried to kick me out of the Marine Corps without an honorable discharge, because I took matters into my own hands,” Josh said.
“When I hear from guys that are struggling and they say they don’t want to try marijuana, because it’s illegal, it’s sad,” said Josh.
Remembering when he was on the pharmaceuticals that the VA encouraged he said “I was numb, I didn’t love, I didn’t hate…I didn’t do anything,” said Josh.
He now says he wants to “stop the madness.”
Boone is a medically retired combat medic who fought in Iraq. He served in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, one of the most dangerous parts of the city. After he was injured, he spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from his injuries.
In 2012, he was diagnosed with early on-set Parkinson’s due to blast injuries he sustained in Iraq.
“During the two years I spent at Walter Reed, I was given just about every chemical cocktail you can imagine,” said Boone. “When people look at that cocktail they want to know two things: why am I still alive, why isn’t somebody in prison.”
After he was released from the hospital, he continued the regimen of pharmaceuticals. “I wasn’t anything, I was a zombie on the combat cocktail,” Boone continued.
He once spent 17 days in a lock-down unit because he refused to take the prescribed pharmaceuticals.
“My story is not one of Cheech and Chong,” he continued. “It wasn’t a good time when I started using cannabis.”
After the 17 days, Boone was off what he calls the “zombie dope,” but he still couldn’t sleep. “So I washed down every night some Nyquil, and a good amount of scotch,” he said. “A lot of guys do that.”
A co-worker noticed Boone’s tired condition and suggested marijuana to help him sleep. “Pssh. I said I wasn’t one of those guys. I’m not a pothead, I’m not a doper.” That night he tried to sleep, and again, he couldn’t. He decided to give marijuana a try.
“Now, keep in mind, I came from the just say no generation,” said Boone. “I never tried marijuana, I thought it was a gateway drug, the devil’s lettuce, am I right?”
After he first took it he slept for five hours for the first time in five years. Thinking it had to be a fluke, he tried it again, and again, he slept nightmare free for another five hours.
“The only thing I could think of is why I haven’t been doing this the whole time.”