Veterans Push Feds To Recognize Marijuana As A Treatment

Janine Lutz in front of her Memorial Wall, which she built with photos of veterans who committed suicide. Families of the vets send photos to her through her Live To Tell foundation. CREDIT: Julio Ochoa/Health News Florida

 

The following story is from my WUSF Public Radio colleague Julio Ochoa.

Originally published on August 16, 2018 9:29 am

Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.

Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.

But on the pills, Claybaker went from a highly-trained fighting machine to a zombie for at least two hours a day.

“I mean, I’m talking mouth open, staring into space,” Claybaker said.

Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and endured the discomfort for eight months.

Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, he discovered marijuana – and it changed his life.

“I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what’s going on or how bad it is,” Claybaker said.

Marijuana instantly relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.

“I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State,” he said. “I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things.”

In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Even with medicinal marijuana legal in Florida, the federal government says it’s a crime. Claybaker and other soldiers can’t get a prescription from the VA and their insurance won’t cover it. The out-of-pocket costs to buy a month’s supply from a dispensary can be upwards of $500.

Claybaker was featured in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about veterans who want the government to reclassify marijuana to reflect its medical value. The vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.

Reclassifying marijuana from a schedule 1 drug – which has no medical value – would open doors to research and treatment at the VA.

Janine Lutz, who was also featured in the Herald-Tribune’s report, joined the effort after her son committed suicide in 2013.

“The drugs killed my son,” Lutz said.

Janos (John) V. Lutz was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He returned home to Davie in 2011 with injuries to his knee and back and a severe case of PTSD.

Doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom says he was dead within a week.

“I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide,” Janine Lutz said. “And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case.”

Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.

Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military veterans. Families of vets who committed suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall.

Her “Buddy Up” events bring veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.

It was at those events that she learned how many veterans self-medicate with marijuana. With about 20 veterans committing suicide every day in the United States, Lutz says the government needs to act.

“Stop playing games with the lives of America’s sons and daughters and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds,” Lutz said.

The American Legion polled its 2 million members – war veterans – and found that 92 percent favored marijuana research. In addition, 22 percent reported using marijuana for medical reasons.

The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.

So far, that request has gone nowhere.

At a recent stop in Orlando, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has got to follow the rules.

“I’m not a doctor, never played one on television. I’m not a scientist,” Wilkie said. “I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear.”

Charles Claybaker says he and other soldiers deserve better. Claybaker started speaking out after a good friend and fellow ranger committed suicide.

“I think that the government owes it to the veteran to provide the most beneficial treatments for their injuries,” he said.

Marijuana, he said, helps him get through the dark times. He thinks it can help others too.

The radio version of this story is available here.

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VA Faces Challenges Expanding Mental Health Care


Army veteran Phillip Faustman sifts through his belongings at a San Diego homeless shelter. Faustman says he attempted suicide three times in two and a half years.
Christopher Maue / KPBS

The following is a report from Steve Walsh, my colleague at the American Homefront Project, reporting on military life and veterans issues.

The Veterans Health Administration is planning to make mental health care more available to help reduce veteran suicide. But veterans advocates worry about the impact on the already strained VA health system.

A recent government study concluded that the majority of veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA mental health care.

Phillip Faustman almost became a part of that statistic. Faustman, who is gay, joined the Army in 2012 after the end of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military.

“I waited for the repeal, so I joined the Army to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

While in the military, he suffered sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Discouraged, he left the military in 2015, he said.

“When I first got out, I was alone, and no one was really helping me,” he said. “So I had my suicide attempt.”

Periodically homeless, Faustman did not turn to the VA, in part because he found the enrollment process daunting.

That’s a common problem among new veterans, only forty percent of whom receive VA mental health coverage. Many are discouraged from seeking care because of a complicated process to determine their eligibility. Veterans may have to prove, for instance, that their mental health need is connected to their service.

Without treatment, Faustman attempted suicide three times in less than three years. Continue reading

Artist, Author, Former President Bush Visits MacDill AFB

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

The 43rd president appeared on the Today Show Monday to kick off his book tour and is following that with an appearance at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base in the afternoon with a book signing.

He won’t take questions from media. However, former President George W. Bush will autograph pre-purchased copies of his book at MacDill’s Surf’s Edge Club.

It’s been eight years since Bush has occupied the White House. And among his many pursuits he has picked up brush and started painting.

He has become rather prolific producing 66 portraits of military veterans for his book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Many of the men and women are wounded physically or with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Bush paints their portraits and writes the story of their service.

The book’s title riffs off of the Pulitzer-winning book, Profiles in Courage, written in 1956 by former President John F. Kennedy while he was a U.S. Senator and after his distinguished career as a U.S. Naval officer during World War II. Kennedy’s book features eight profiles of men he felt showed extraordinary political courage.

Proceeds from Bush’s book will be given to his foundation, the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which supports transitioning military members offering help with employment and resources.

The Veterans Garden In Tampa Officially Opens

Solar panels are the sole power for the sustainable garden project that was expanded to include veterans. It's a place where veterans can learn gardening techniques as well as solar power, raising chickens, bees and tilapia.

Solar panels are the sole power for the sustainable garden project that was expanded to include veterans. It’s a place where veterans can learn gardening techniques as well as solar power, raising chickens, bees and tilapia.

A ceremonial seed planting will be part of the official opening of the Veterans’ Garden, 918 W. Sligh Avenue, Tampa across from Lowry Park Zoo.

The event is set for Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 10:30 a.m. and will include recognition of USAA which provided  a grant to expand the sustainable garden for veterans.

It’s a place where veterans can volunteer, learn agriculture techniques and the produce will be donated to veterans at risk of homelessness.

“Veterans found that since they started community agriculture initiatives that they were more comfortable talking with civilians and more comfortable talking to strangers and people that didn’t have a military background,” said VA researcher Karen Besterman-Dahan, “Those were really important things.”

She said researchers are just beginning to study the therapeutic value of  agriculture and gardening to help veterans manage depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

6 Mobile Apps To Help Fight Depression

On 4 September 2006 soldiers with Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment, hug during a memorial ceremony held for Army Staff Sgt. Joshua R. Hanson, a fire team leader with Able Company, at Mainside Chapel here September 4. The chapel filled with tears when a photo slide show, featuring pictures of the moments that Hanson had spent with the unit was displayed before the last roll call and a 21-shot rifle salute. The memorial consisted of the playing of our national anthem, prayer; a scripture read by Justin D. Knopf, a 24-year-old squad leader from Detroit Lakes, a photo slide show, a 21- shot rifle salute and the playing of "Taps". An inverted M-16A2 rifle was placed in Hanson's homage, with a Kevlar helmet resting on top. Engraved identification tags and a crucifix hung from the rifle's pistol grip. Immediately in front, an empty pair of boots was positioned, while behind the display, the national ensign and battalion colors were displayed. Along the sides were two ammunition cans containing keepsakes from fellow soldiers. The battalion, an Army National Guard unit out of Detroit Lakes, Minn, is currently attached to 1st Marine Logistics Group (Fwd). Able and Headquarters Companies, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment, 1st Marine Logistics Group is deployed with I MEF (FWD) in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq (MNF-W) to develop the Iraqi Security Forces, facilitate the development of official rule of law through democratic government reforms, and continue the development of a market based economy centered on Iraqi Reconstruction. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal Ryan L. Tomlinson)

On 4 September 2006 soldiers with Able Company, 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry Regiment, hug during a memorial ceremony held for Army Staff Sgt. Joshua R. Hanson, (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Corporal Ryan L. Tomlinson)

The following article comes directly from the public affairs office of the Defense Centers of Excellence: For Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. The centers are an excellent resource for information on mental health for the whole family: service members, veterans, families, caregivers and health care providers.

For a quick look at depression in the United States, check out these statistics:

With reports like these, we should keep tools to fight depression handy. The National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), with the Department of Veterans Affairs, designs tools like apps for your smartphone. And these days, there are few things handier than a mobile app.

However, before you explore the T2 suite of apps, here’s an overview of depression:

Depression

Depression isn’t a simple feeling (sad, down, blue, etc.); it is a serious condition that requires patience, understanding and treatment. Clinical depression is a medical condition and like other medical conditions, it can interfere with a person’s daily life and can make normal functioning a challenge. Depression can vary in type and symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Intense sadness, feelings of hopelessness
  • Memory lapse, trouble with attention
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Thoughts of death, suicide
  • Exhaustion, fatigue
  • Sleep problems (too much or too little)
  • Impatient, fidgety
  • Loss of appetite, changes in weight
  • Body aches (headaches, cramps or digestive problems) without a clear physical connection and no relief even with treatment

Causes

According to the “VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline for the Management of Major Depressive Disorder (PDF)”:

“Depression is considered a biological illness but can result from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger depression, but depression can also occur without an obvious trigger.”

It can present at any age and may co-occur with other medical conditions such as a traumatic brain injury, diabetes or cancer.

Treatment

Health care providers can treat depression. The earlier a person starts treatment, the better the outcome. Treatment involves psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Without treatment, depression can recur frequently and may become chronic.

“If you experience several depression symptoms that last longer than two weeks and interfere with normal daily activities, it’s time to see a health care provider,” said Cmdr. Angela Williams, chief of evidence-based practice at the Deployment Health Clinical Center. “Most people who engage in treatment for depression get better.”

Fight Depression with Mobile Apps

This list of mobile apps from T2 can help users understand and manage depression symptoms:

  • ACT Coach uses mindfulness and acceptance strategies to help users cope with emotions and symptoms of psychological health conditions.
  • LifeArmor offers information, support tools (such as depression assessments), videos and a symptom tracker. It is the mobile compliment to AfterDeployment.
  • Mindfulness Coach teaches focused attention using guided mindfulness meditation practices. It includes session logs to track progress and educational materials.
  • Moving Forward features problem-solving tools designed to teach life skills.
  • Positive Activity Jackpot helps users overcome depression and build resilience. It uses augmented reality technology to locate positive activities nearby.
  • T2 Mood Tracker helps users monitor and track their emotional health. Results are displayed in an easy-to-understand graph.
  • Virtual Hope Box strengthens coping, relaxation and distraction skills. Users can add personal photos, inspirational quotes, etc., to support positive thinking.

If you, or someone close to you, are experiencing depression, please talk to your health care provider. For more information about depression and available resources in your area, contact the 24/7 DCoE Outreach Center. Professional health resource consultants stand ready to help you access information specific to your needs. Call today: 866-966-1020.

Judge Asks University To Readmit Expelled Veteran

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

A Hillsborough Circuit judge is calling on the University of South Florida to live up to its recent ranking as a top “veteran friendly” university.

Judge Greg Holder has asked USF President Judy Genshaft to readmit a student veteran who was expelled after an off-campus incident in August 2014.

Holder said the charges against former Army Staff Sergeant Clay Allred were serious – threatening a store clerk with a firearm and later discharging the firearm into the air – but Allred’s actions were directly related to his combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Allred was accepted in the Veterans Treatment Court, he admitted his guilt, accepted responsibility and was sentence to two years on house arrest followed by three years of probation.

Now after a year of court supervision and treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that had gone undiagnosed, Holder said the former Green Beret deserves a second chance to complete his degree.

In his letter dated Nov. 13, 2015, the judge requested that USF re-admit Allred as an online student so he can finish his senior year. Holder even offered to amend Allred’s house arrest to prohibit him from going onto USF property.

“I’m providing whatever protections Dr. Genshaft or her personnel might deem appropriate,” Holder said. “So, that hopefully consistent with USF status as the number two veteran friendly school in this nation, we can get this man back as a member of the ‘Bull Nation.’”

A USF spokeswoman said the university has received Holder’s letter, but could not say if Genshaft has read it. The university declined comment on Allred’s status citing federal privacy laws and added that “USF does not offer online exclusive undergraduate programs.”

Along with his letter, Holder included 40 pages of supporting documentation including Allred’s citation for the Army Bronze Star Medal awarded for his service in Afghanistan training members of the Afghan National Police.

Veterans And Family Invited To ‘Debt Of Honor’ Preview

wusf_debt_of_honor_invitationFor veterans living in the Tampa Bay region, WUSF Public Radio invites you to participate in a panel discussion and preview of the new Ric Burns film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.”

The WUSF Florida Matters Town Hall taping is Thursday, Nov. 5 at the University of South Florida Tampa campus, in the College of Public Health’s Samuel Bell Auditorium (13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612).

Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for an opening reception, and the taping that starts at 6 p.m. Seating is limited and registration is required. Please RSVP at this link, or call 813-905-6901.

A preview of the film will be followed by a panel discussion with:

  • Filmmaker Ric Burns
  • Actor and national veterans’ spokesman JR Martinez
  • Taylor Urruela, a disabled veteran who lives in Tampa

It will be moderated by Carson Cooper, the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show.

 

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