Editor’s Note: This piece is Part 1 in a series of articles on Buckley and the Battle Brothers Foundation’s efforts to evaluate the use of medical cannabis in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for veterans.
In the early summer of 2012, my team from the 1st Marine Raider Battalion was deployed to the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I had been to war multiple times before, but little did I know the ever-lasting impact that this deployment would have on my life.
The deployment was during the infamous “Fighting Season.” This term was adopted by members of the military to describe the increase in Taliban as they were returning from “winter hibernation.” During the spring, the poppy plants would bloom, and the Afghans would cultivate the poppies and turn them into heroin. This deadly opiate would then be sold, ensuring the Taliban had cash to help support and fuel their insurgency. They would fight to the death in order to protect their revenue source, located in the heart of the Helmand Valley.
Our unit knew this deployment to the Helmand Valley was going to be intense, to say the least. Many we served with were wounded and sent back home; others made the ultimate sacrifice. Every summer I relive that deployment, I reflect on the good times but mainly think of those we lost. We were told it was one of the bloodiest summers for Special Operation Forces since the Vietnam War. Those I served with in the Helmand Valley did not take this as a badge of honor, it was just our harsh reality and best describes the arena we were in together.
During combat, you develop the ability to compartmentalize moments of trauma. One needs to remain focused on the mission at hand and remain focused on the enemy. You cannot afford to go “internal,” which often resulted in more friendly casualties. Each time we would return from deployment we would need time to adjust to everyday life at home. As things begin to slow down and you get back into a daily routine, events you suppressed emotionally while in combat or on a mission tend to push themselves to the surface of your emotions. In essence, they come to light. This is not the case for all military personnel that went downrange; however, through my relationships, I have noted that a majority will endure similar issues.
Many look for help to cope with and understand the realities of their mental anguish and physical pain, but find their options limited. A vast majority of veterans are prescribed opiates and begin drinking in excess to cope with their demons. Over the years we have learned that these types of releases – opiates, alcohol, and other substances – do not provide long-term relief, but rather can (and do) cause depression, anxiety, addiction, and alcoholism.
I am a disabled veteran, diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. Upon returning to civilian life, I was experiencing many issues and became acutely aware of the limited options that our veterans have. Far too many feeling that taking their own life was the only way to escape their suffering. According to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, 6,435 U.S. Veterans ended their own life in 2018, which equated to a staggering 17.6 lives a day. It is tragic and simply unacceptable.
In 2016, in an attempt to support our veterans and provide solutions, I formed the Battle Brothers Foundation. The goal of this organization is to help veterans in a unique three-fold approach – Personal, Medical, and Economic stability. We wanted to take care of our own.
It was at this time, another fellow Marine Raider, Andy Miears, began to tell me about a life-changing event that he was going through. Andy was utilizing medical cannabis to deal with some of his pain and post-traumatic stress. His story was incredible. The passion in his face was contagious as he explained how cannabis is enhancing his life. No longer did he want any pills. No longer was alcohol a way to get through a day and to fall asleep. Cannabis was helping him transition from a warrior to a gardener.
Naturally, after hearing Andy’s testimony and trusting him like a brother, I too had to try out cannabis. Using cannabis wasn’t something I really thought about before. Of course, I had friends who would use it and I thought that was great. That was their choice, and they never really did any harm to themselves or anyone else. So why not?
The first night I consumed, it felt like part of my soul returning to my body. I finally could get a full night of sleep. The next day was even better. It became part of my routine. Wake up, work out, go to work, return home, play with kids and get them ready for bed. When it was time to get ready to sleep, I consumed cannabis. The impact it had on myself and others was profound.
We knew we needed to push this through the right channels and see if somehow, someway, medical cannabis could make it into the Veterans Health Administration. Could this be a viable alternative to opiates that are being prescribed? How could we even make the case?
During the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to talk with members of the United States Congress. They were either in favor of medical cannabis or were at least open to the discussion. When I asked what would be needed to prove the benefits of medical cannabis (and prove my hypothesis) and attempt to make it federally legal, I was informed we would need data from studies performed by United States physicians. Being a Marine, I proudly accepted this mission, but when I walked out of the door I thought, “How the heck am I going to pull this one off?”
There is a saying in the military: “avoid comfort-based decisions.” In the fall of 2017, I was invited to the UCLA Medical Cannabis Symposium. It was an evening event, and I was just wrapping up a day of pitching this concept to people in the hopes I could find some support. It was a typical day of people explaining that they loved the idea and support what we are doing, but just could not see how we could pull this off. Honestly, at this point, my bed in San Diego was looking really nice. However, I said to myself “Let’s not make a comfort-based decision and follow through on your commitment.”
Then, during the coffee break, I met a gentleman named Alon Blatt. Alon worked for an organization called NiaMedic Healthcare & Research. His organization was based out of Israel, but had offices in Los Angeles and Orange County, California. Compared to the United States, Israel is decades ahead in terms of its cannabis research. When I explained that I wanted to prove that medical cannabis can improve the lives of United States veterans, he was all in. Alon served in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and had first-hand knowledge of what medical cannabis did for him and his post-traumatic stress. From there a friendship was born that would later turn into a brotherhood.
Alon explained to me that in order to accomplish this, we would need to produce a study that would require an Institutional Review Board’s approval. An Institutional Review Board (“IRB”) is an appropriately constituted group that has been formally designated to review and monitor biomedical research involving human subjects. In accordance with FDA regulations, an IRB has the authority to approve, require modifications, or disapprove research. He told me this would be expensive and complicated.
I had a roadmap, but now my thoughts shift to how I was going to conduct the execution of being awarded an IRB and raise money to do so….