Fighting for our veterans By Patricia Smith
Bobby West was 18 years old when he witnessed a terrible accident that occurred on the US Nimitz while he was stationed in the North Arabian Sea in 1988. West is still haunted by images of his shipmates engulfed in flames that fateful day when a cannon aboard an A-7E aircraft misfired during a routine ”troubleshooting maintenance.” A 20mm shell exploded into a nearby plane, starting a chain reaction of devastation that caused “minor to major” damage on six aircraft. The smell of burning flesh, jet fuel, and melting plastic overwhelmed West’s senses.
Over time, Bobby’s memories resurfaced at inconvenient moments causing his heart to race and his body to shake uncontrollably. Many nights he awoke sweating profusely, the fear so palatable he could hardly breathe. He withdrew from society, eventually isolating himself from his family and friends. Bobby was experiencing all the classic symptoms of PTSD although his condition went undiagnosed for years.
West tried to hide his condition by self-medicating with alcohol and street drugs, but he soon spiraled out of control. He ended up on the streets for a number of years before the VA finally diagnosed his condition and started him on serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) combined with behavior modification sessions.
The VA prescribed Bobby a cornucopia of anti-depressants – Zoloft, Xanax, Paxil, Prozac, Lexapro – but he found the side effects intolerable. He was often so blue that death seemed like an attractive alternative. West believed he was doomed to feel either manic or moody until a friend suggested he try marijuana.
“It changed my life,” he exclaimed gleefully. “Nothing has worked as well to stabilize my condition.” The irony is that the very incident that caused Bobby’s PTSD also made it impossible for him to get medicine he needed legally. Testing positive for marijuana was grounds for being denied medical treatment at the VA facilities.
VA Report Reveals Shocking Statistics
A 2013 report conducted by the VA revealed that 22 veterans commit suicide on a daily basis – an average of one every 65 minutes – which is 50% higher than the rate of suicides committed by the general population. As shocking as these statistics are, they may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Researchers believe this number is too low because the study only included 21 states that collectively represent 40% of the population. Notably, the two states with the largest populations, California and Texas, were excluded from the study.
According to the Journal of Psychiatry, about 40% of people taking anti-depressants have side effects, and about 25% experience side effects that are considered “bothersome.” According to independent research, when compared with a placebo, taking an SSRI or another antidepressant doubles the risk for suicidal thinking.
Patients who take SSRIs may also experience side effects such as violent behavior, mania or aggression, which can all lead to suicide and may explain the spike in military personnel who take their own lives. (Friends of Robin Williams believe SSRI’s were responsible for his death.)
Senate Approves Medical Marijuana for Vets
In a historic move, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted 18-12 to approve an amendment that would allow physicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to military personnel.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley co-sponsored the amendment for inclusion in the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. Specifically the bipartisan amendment would disallow the VA from spending funds that prohibit physicians from recommending medical marijuana to Vets in states where the drug is legal.
A similar bill didn’t fare as well in Congress. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who brought the bill for a vote in the House, was disappointed that it was defeated by just three votes.
Blumennauer noted, “While opponents provided false information that medical marijuana has no therapeutic value, we were able to drive home the point that the current system, which denies veterans medical marijuana but over-prescribes them highly addictive and dangerous opioids, is the real scandal.”
“All in all, this is an extraordinarily strong showing. This year’s much closer vote signals that we are in an excellent position to be able to pass simple, commonsense legislation to deal with the realities of the legal business of marijuana across the country.”
No matter how you feel about the military, our country has made a pact with our men and women in the service and we have a moral responsibility to see to their welfare when they return home. Unfortunately, a handful of elected officials continue to put politics above the welfare of our Veterans including our own representative, Doug La Malfa, who voted against the bill.
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