As daybreak over Mosul, Iraq, mist from the Tigris River poured over the steps of the grand Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque. It was a frigid morning in January 2007, and we’d just woken up on the fifth floor of a bombed-out windowless building. We rushed to don our body armor and wedged ourselves into heated trucks. That day we supported another unit that was conducting a route-clearance mission.
But the morning silence was broken by an explosion that killed five men and sent the truck they were driving flying through the air. The explosion broke the vehicle into several pieces, leaving the body parts of each of the men in an open field.
One of them, Matthew Tyler Grimm, had been my roommate. The other four were Mark Daily, John Cooper, Ian Anderson and an Iraqi-Kurdish interpreter codenamed Jacob. As the fog mixed with the smoke from the explosion, I drove slowly toward the smoldering crater, driving carefully so as not to crush my friends’ remains.
It was a moment of pure hell.
We found a wire sticking out of the edge of the explosion site and followed it across a field to a hut on the roof of a house. Based on this finding, we concluded that the building was the origin of the explosion. In the house we found a man and took him as a prisoner of war. I was ordered to guard him, and I have never felt more hatred and anger than at that moment.
‘I did not do it! I did not do it!” he shouted in Arabic.
When my patience ran out, an entire battalion of American soldiers gathered at our location and we began to clean up the remains of the explosion. There were no survivors. Mixed in with the dust and chunks of machinery, we found hands still gloves and feet still boots. The stench was so pungent that I later had to burn my uniform. It was hard to believe it was all real.
Ten years have passed and not a day goes by that the explosion and death of my friends do not occur to me.
My military career that followed was marred by sleep problems, nightmares, anger, depression and appointments with therapists. I tried pharmaceutical drugs, but I was turned off when I saw the reality of my friends on these drugs, turning them into stunned zombies. As I tried to work on these issues, I was helplessly swept up in the fast pace of military life, which included months of training in a remote part of the Southwest to prepare for another deployment to Iraq. I never had a chance to focus on the problems I encountered in my own head, which continued in the next deployment and were exacerbated by nights filled with incoming missiles and serious injuries sustained by people close to me.
I returned from my second year touring Iraq in 2010, leaving the military after six life-changing years. I knew that therapy was something I needed to keep going, as well as meditation and immersing myself in stressful situations. Still, I wasn’t sure whether medical marijuana was a path I wanted to pursue. I had smoked weed in high school, but with the stigma that marijuana prohibition had created and my impending job search, I was afraid it wasn’t the right choice for me. I continued with therapy and meditation, but my problems persisted and doctors wanted to give me the prescription drugs I feared. I was at my wits’ end.
One day I was waiting for an appointment at the local Veterans Aﬀairs hospital when a man said to me, “How are you, friend?” He was older, with gauges in his ears and a Combat Infantry Badge tattooed next to a rainbow heart on his leg.
“Oh, I’m pretty good. And you?” I replied.
“Oh, well, you know, I’ve got full-blown AIDS—so that happens. I have to go to the Bay Area this weekend for an experimental treatment. They say it’s only for people who are very advanced – I was a little worried about me,’ he joked in a cheerful way.
I asked him how he could remain so optimistic.
“Well, the weed helps me eat and rest well,” he said. “Everything but those things is extra.”
I was absolutely blown away by the man’s exuberance, even though he was dealing with a life-threatening condition. He embodied the kind of mindset I was trying to achieve, and I wanted to take his model and apply it to my own life. If he could endure AIDS, I could endure the demons I was fighting. I decided that day to try medical marijuana, and six years later, I’ve never looked back.
Meeting this man with AIDS was a defining moment in my battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. I vowed to improve myself and through meditation I wanted to find a kindness in my heart that I didn’t know existed. I wanted to do things I loved again and leave my fear of other things, such as crowds, behind me. I had to find my new normal and one day I was put to the test like no other.
It was early November 2010, and the Giants had just won the World Series. The crowd was huge at the parade, with people stacked on top of each other and a thunderous roar ripped through Market Street. It was intense.
The same intensity that caused such joy in the hearts of the masses caused great fear, because while I had started using marijuana at home, I still avoided it in public. I started to sweat. It felt like things were approaching me and that at some point the crowd would turn on me. I felt like I was spiraling out of control and drowning in a sea of people.
Then I smoked a joint with a stranger who saw my visible discomfort. He told me to calm down and that there was no one to hurt me. I stepped back from the stressful situation with a new mindset; everyone was there to enjoy themselves as much as I was. I realized that no one stepped on BART that morning with the intention of harming me. I became at ease. I could enjoy a normal activity and did not have to distance myself from the joy of that day.
Going back to what’s normal was my goal, and what’s always been normal for me is going to concerts. My aunt took me to Sacramento’s infamous venue, The Boardwalk, for punk rock shows when I was in high school. Crowds are an important factor in concert culture, but thanks to medical cannabis, I can now enjoy concerts again.
Every year, two soldiers I served with on my second tour in Iraq meet me for the second week of Coachella. Our annual meetings remind us of our past and reconnect us with a world we’ve left behind. We are all three medical marijuana patients, and the fact that we are able to handle ourselves within the incredible mass of people that is Coachella is testament to the anxiety-reducing effects of this incredible plant.
Recently I went to Veterans Aﬀairs hospital for a routine therapy session, as I will never leave the shadow of the great mosque behind me. As I walked out, a man passed me. He had meters in his ears and it seemed as if all hell had gone through him.
“Everything good?” I said.
“How does it look like I’m doing?” he said in a strangely cheerful but disgruntled way. I had often thought of him but couldn’t quite believe it was the man with AIDS until I saw the tattoos on his legs. I turned and ran after him.
“Hey man, I know you probably don’t remember me, but you had a big impact on my life. How are you actually doing, man?”
“Well, I have an aorta that’s almost ready to go, but my AIDS is fine,” he said.
“Are you okay with your AIDS?” I asked.
“Yeah, don’t worry about that at all. But my heart…’
The man had survived. The random man who convinced me of the benefits of medical marijuana with his “full AIDS” commentary was still walking the earth, and I’m convinced this is partly due to a plant that has been maligned for far too long.
I will never be free from the memories of my past, but cannabis has taught me to cope with my symptoms. With the added support of my family, my dogs, and the love of my life, I’ve been able to handle it. None of this would have been possible without the healing properties of medical marijuana.