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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New Report: Suicide 21 Percent Greater Risk For Veterans

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAfter releasing a summary in early July, the Department of Veterans Affairs today released its  full report on veteran suicides.

The Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014 is a comprehensive analysis that looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records  from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation.

Some key findings from this year’s report include:
  • In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were users of the VA Health services.
  • In 2014, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult deaths by suicide in the U.S. but only make up 8.5 percent of the population age 18 or older.
  • In 2014, about 67 percent of all suicides by veterans a firearm was used.
  • Approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while Veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for Veterans.

A fact sheet is available and the VA is taking several measures to increase prevention programs and access to care and the Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255.


A New HBO Documentary – Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1

vet crisis lineEvery day, 22 veterans take their own lives.  That’s according to a report released earlier this year by the Department of Veterans Affairs.  And that number could actually be higher.

The rate of veteran-suicide is much higher than for the general population.

The Veterans Crisis Line was established six years ago to try and slow the flood of veteran suicides.

A new HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, takes us past the cubicles and down the hallways at the Veterans Crisis Line Center based in Canandaigua, N.Y.

There, you hear the piercing ring of telephone and catch snippets of conversations with the first responders trying to nudge that suicide rate down:

“Thank you for calling the Veterans Crisis Line, my name is Lewis. How can I help you?”

“… I know you said you have a knife nearby you. Do you agree to not use that knife while I put you on hold?”

“… What you’re telling me is that people have to do something drastic before they get help.”

Responders answer calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The hotline is not just for veterans considering suicide. Any veteran experiencing any kind of distress can call at any time.

“Whether they’re dealing with relationship issues, problems finding work, problems just adjusting back into civilian life, there’s a ton of things they could run into and they need to understand they’re not alone and these things can be worked out,” said Jason Edlin, an Army veteran who has worked as a Veterans Crisis Line responder for almost five years.

Edlin was there when HBO filmed the documentary. He isn’t in the movie but says it delivers a message the public needs to hear.

A display table featuring key chains and kitchen magnets with the Veterans Crisis Line was set up this week for student veterans at the University of South Florida by staff at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

A display table featuring key chains and kitchen magnets with the Veterans Crisis Line was set up this week for student veterans at the University of South Florida by staff at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

I hope that people can better understand what veterans go through,” Edlin said.

The Veterans Crisis Line fields more than 22,000 calls a month.

Since 2001, more veterans have died by their own hand than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while suicide has been increasing, the deputy director of suicide prevent at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Caitlin Thompson, likes to point out some distinctions.

“We’re finding that of those veterans and service members who die by suicide less than half of them have actually have been deployed,” Thompson said. “So, we can’t just put it on ‘well they were deployed and they all saw combat and that’s why they’re dying’ because that’s actually been shown to not be the case.”

Thompson said suicide is complex. Many veterans and service members have the same reasons as the general population for killing themselves such as financial and relationship problems. But military service can compound those issues.

“We’re working so hard at the VA and at the DoD (Department of Defense) as well in our suicide prevention effort,” Thompson said. “Another thing I want to bring up is the culture of using firearms in a veteran population. And it’s been shown that veterans die by suicide by firearms far more than the general population. Veterans and service members are very comfortable with firearms and so gun safety is also a very important consideration as we continue to look ahead.”

Thompson helped the Department of Defense set up their Suicide Prevention Office and she spent four years as one of the psychologists overseeing the responders, the people who answer the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some of the free paraphernalia used to promote the Veterans Crisis Line.

Some of the free paraphernalia used to promote the Veterans Crisis Line.

“It’s such a unique environment in that way. It’s a very emotional environment to work in. it’s very high stress,” Thompson said.

The HBO documentary shows  supervisors comforting  responders after some of the more difficult calls.

Thompson said that’s the value of the documentary. It shows veterans the compassion of the responders on the other end of the phone.

We want veterans and service members to pick up the phone and call and at times it may be very, very hard for people to do that,” Thompson said.”But I’m hoping that after seeing some of the faces on the other end of the phone and hearing some of the stories that that will help promote the crisis line as an option.”

That option also extends to family members and friends of veterans and to service members. The Crisis Line is open to them. And there is also live online chats and texting.

You can listen to the radio version of this story on WUSF 89.7 News.

The HBO documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, airs again Sunday at 6:00 a.m., 3:15 p.m.; Nov. 19 at 10:45 a.m. and Nov. 23 at 12:15 p.m. HBO2 playdates: Nov. 18 at 9:30 a.m. and Nov. 26 2:10 p.m.

4 Tips to Help Your Service Member Seek Mental Health Help

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Sean Stevenson takes a knee while on a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, June 6, 2011. Stevenson is a corpsman with Combined Anti-Armor Team 2, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 8. The U.S. Marines conduct frequent patrols through the area to show a presence and interact with the community to find ways to help the populace. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nathan McCord/Released)

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Sean Stevenson takes a knee while on a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, June 6, 2011. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Nathan McCord/Released)

A family member is usually the first to know when something is wrong with their service member whether its depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But getting your loved one to seek help is easy to put-off.

There are a few tips to help prepare and present a case for help offered by experts at the Defense Centers of Excellence:

Gather information
Become informed about PTSD, family reintegration, combat stresses, depression, alcohol and drug use to start.  Try these resources.

Talk about your concerns
Talk openly about your thoughts, feelings and concerns you have about how the veteran is feeling or reacting to situations. Refrain from using the pronoun “you” – instead, try saying, “I know things are not going well right now … I’d like to help.”

Recognize your service member or veteran’s choices
Demanding someone seek help can backfire. Avoid making threats. Talk about choices. Only the individual can make the choice and commitment to improve their lives, but your support can make this more likely.

Get help from others about talking with your loved one
If you’re having trouble talking to your service member about mental health concerns or just want to know about the right treatment resources, Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 can be a good start.

For those family members concerned about a military veteran, you can contact Coaching Into Care at 888-823-7458. This program, provided by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helps family members assist their veteran in accessing health and mental health care.

Suicide Is Not an Isolated Event and It’s Preventable

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses the audience at the fourth annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference June 22, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Clinical psychologist David Barry, a lieutenant commander with  U.S. Public Health Service, summarized the Department of Defense and VA Suicide Prevention Conference:

“Throughout the conference, speakers emphasized the point that suicide isn’t an isolated event, and it’s preventable.”

Barry writes about the progress he witnessed at the annual conference and notes the support from leadership.

  • Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for pioneering and breaking “new ground in understanding the human mind and human emotion”
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke of removing “any distinction between behavioral and mental health”
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs EricShinseki called to target and prevent substance abuse as a means to prevent suicide and veteran homelessness.

You can learn more about the Defense Centers of Excellence programs aimed at preventing suicide HERE.

Jail Just for Military Veterans Opens in Columbus, Georgia

Veterans’ dorm at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Fla. (Photo courtesy: Florida Department of Corrections)

A Georgia sheriff has opened what is believed to be the first jail dedicated to just military combat veterans. It will house 16 inmates reports The Guardian.

John Darr, the sheriff of Muscogee County in Columbus, Georgia, has created the new facility in an attempt to break the cycle of recidivism by providing them with specialist services to help them deal with the problems they carry with them when they decamp.

“It’s really unique. What we’re bringing together is a lot of resources,” Darr told the local Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

 The idea of the jail is considered an extension of the “Veterans Courts” which have become a trend to help with a growing number of military veterans charged with misdemeanor crimes.

The concept at the Veterans Courts and at the new Veterans Jail is to hook the veterans up with services and benefits they’re entitled to whether its counseling or housing help. The Guardian:

Up-to-date figures on the number of imprisoned veterans are hard to come by, but the problem is known to be extensive. A report from 2004 calculated there were about 140,000 veterans in US federal and state prisons but that might be a small fraction of the total as many more are held at county jail level.

As sheriff Darr told Fox News: “If [veterans] are not dealing with issues they may have, where are they going to go? They’re going to go to local county jails.”

The dedicated Veterans Jail has been open about a month in Columbus, GA which is close to Fort Benning, a large military base.

But Georgia is not the first to act on the idea. Last November, the Florida Department of Corrections set aside separate wings for military veterans at five of its prisons.

The Florida DOC veteran dorms have several features not available in the other prison dorms, including daily flag raising and retiring ceremonies, staff with military backgrounds and the requirement of military standards for clothing, bunks and dorm areas reports ABC News.

The use of profanity is prohibited in these areas and the inmates are encouraged to attend evening group meetings. They are also required to maintain good behavior and be disciplinary report-free.

Inmates must be verified veterans and within three years of their prison release dates, and must volunteer to live in the Veterans’ dorms.

Iraq Veteran Turned Author: Johnny Get Your Textbook

Colby Buzzell


With a half empty bottle of cheap wine in one hand (my third of the evening) and a DVD remote in the other, I sat on the sofa—eyes glazed over—numb. I was watching Taxi Driver, pressing the rewind button over and over again, replaying the same scene.

Wearing a Marine Corps shirt while doing pushups and sit-ups in his apartment, Travis Bickle narrates, “I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pull ups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on there will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”

I don’t remember much after that. The next morning with bloodshot eyes raised at half staff, I stared at my beat-up reflection in the mirror. I looked like a retired punching bag—killing myself slowly every night was taking its toll. Not only that, when I took my shirt off, I looked pregnant. After splashing cold water on my face, I wondered how difficult the first day of sobriety was going to be. Somewhere in that drunken fog the night before I promised myself I was done drinking and I intended to keep that promise.

Our unofficial unit motto when we deployed to Iraq in 2003 was “Punish the Deserving,” and shortly after we came back, I was discharged—like an expended 7.62 brass shell casing. From there, I guess you could say I was a functioning alcoholic. One of my inspirations for cleaning up was Sergeant Todd Vance. We served together in Iraq, and after getting out, he was a day laborer. He worked for minimum wage, laying brick all day, which he quit to attend community college courtesy of the GI Bill.  After getting through that, Vance was accepted at a university—all while hitting the gym every day and becoming a competitive kick boxer. During all this time, I opted to self medicate…

Colby Buzzell served as a government trained trigger puller in the United States Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team during the Iraq War 2003-04. He is also the author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost In America: A Dead End Journey.

This blog is fortunate to have many gifted contributors, but on occasion, I find a writer so strong – the voice must be shared. Above is a portion of Colby Buzzell’s blog entry posted on Vantage Point – the VA’s blog. You can read Buzzell’s complete blog entry HERE.

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