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Healing Our Heroes

Sexual trauma is epidemic in the military, and survivors are demanding cannabis to help them heal.

Healing Our Heroes
Lauren Hough was told she'd jeopardize her military career if she reported her rape/ Courtesy of Lauren Hough

A plate dropped at the restaurant where Kristina, a combat vet of 14 years, worked. She dove under a table. “It was around the 4th of July—that’s when the fireworks happen, which is a very stressful time for me,” she says. The national holiday is difficult for many vets, as fireworks can sound like a war zone. A younger male coworker wasn’t doing his job and ignored Kristina’s requests to pick up the slack. “I asked him repeatedly to do it, and then I lost it and almost went for the kid’s neck,” she recalls. Thankfully, a friend was present to bring her out of the flashback and into the present. “She nudged me with her elbow, and I was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’ I went to the VA the next day, and I haven’t been back to work since.”

While Kristina (whose last name is being withheld for legal protection) has been out of the military since 2008, it was only six months ago when she realized she was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “PTSD is a huge problem regardless of the source, and we’re only starting to grapple with the implications as a society. Nowhere is going to be as difficult as the military,” says Harvard-trained holistic care and cannabis-therapeutics specialist Dr. Jordan Tishler.

Kristina is also a military sexual-trauma survivor. When asked if she was assaulted while in the service, she responds: “Yes, ma’am. Numerous times in numerous ways in numerous countries by numerous people.” According to a report released by the Pentagon, sexual assaults across the US military increased by nearly 38 percent in 2018. The Pentagon also estimated that 20,500 service members across the military branches, about 13,000 women and 7,500 men, were assaulted in 2018, according to an anonymous survey. A quick internet search provides an array of articles and research on combat violence, PTSD and cannabis, but the same is not true for sexual violence within the military. Despite the lack of acknowledgment, vets who survived both combat trauma and military sexual trauma (MST) may have particularly intense PTSD. “There is a greater persistence of the PTSD symptoms when both have been experienced,” says clinical psychologist and sexologist Dr. Denise Renye.

There is a void in what should be a plethora of discussions given how common MST is. According to a study looking into sexual harassment and assault of female US military personnel in the Persian Gulf War, sexual assault had a more significant impact on PTSD than combat exposure. “The sexual trauma was worse than anything they experienced combat-wise,” says somatic psychologist and sex therapist Holly Richmond when asked about her veteran clients. “Combat violence gets more attention because it’s seen as a valiant act,” says Alandria Hatcher, a US Army veteran who served from 1998 to 2009. She adds that despite the #MeToo movement, it’s no surprise that MST stats are going up. “I think, unfortunately, that in the era of #MeToo, because the military is such a good old boys club, they kind of poke fun at it,” Hatcher adds.

Ten years ago, the VA diagnosed Kristina with anxiety and “a little bit” of PTSD, so she assumed the incidents at work were anxiety-related. “I didn’t think it was as bad as it was until it got worse. PTSD is so unpredictable,” Kristina explains. Because she was on pharmaceuticals and in recovery from alcohol, she never considered cannabis as a viable treatment option. Then her son stepped in. While she was visiting him in California, he offered her a piece of infused white chocolate to help her sleep after he saw the large amount of benzodiazepines she was taking. Kristina was hesitant, but her son assured her he would take care of her. “I took the candy,” Kristina says. “I slept like a stinking baby and better than I had in years. The next day I called my husband, and I said, ‘Honey, how do you feel about me bringing home some butter?’ We made a whole bunch of butter at my son’s, and I took some plants home.” Kristina’s friends and family welcomed her new medicine when they saw how much it helped her.

Kristina has been making her own cannabis medicine ever since (and hasn’t had a drink). She also weaned herself off the pills. Of course, there is no shame in taking pharmaceuticals to help treat mental-health problems. Plenty of medical-cannabis users do. As Dr. Tishler notes, “I have some qualms over ‘I’ve got to get off this medicine’… It undermines the validity of that medicine for people who truly need it.”

Some vets, such as Kristina, say using cannabis dramatically improved their health. “Without cannabis, it’s just so hard to be me,” Kristina says. She is not the only MST survivor who finds that cannabis improves their quality of life. “They wanted me on a ton of pills, and that’s great, but I like to be able to function. I learned about CBD and that certain strains didn’t give you a high but helped calm the parts of your brain that get overactive with stressors,” Hatcher says. “I found cannabis a lot more effective than anything else,” agrees fellow veteran Lauren Hough. Previously, she tried an array of antidepressants but ultimately found the side effects were not worth the benefits.

Hough joined the military right after high school in 1996 and served for five years. She was raped by an acquaintance while at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, which she attended after basic training. She was hanging out and drinking with friends on the beach. “I was drunk and going back to the dorms because I just wanted to go to bed. I started walking up the hill, and he walked with me, and he ended up raping me,” Hough says.

After the rape, Hough returned to her dorm and was reported for being drunk by the dorm guard who signed her in. “My eyes were bloodshot and I had leaves in my hair. Those things were not because I was drunk. He reported me, and I got called to the student leader’s office on Monday,” she recalls. During the meeting, she told the student leader what happened. The student leader told Hough not to say anything because if she reported the rape, she’d also need to report the drinking, which would not only get Hough in trouble, but also every friend she was drinking with. “She said, ‘This is the worst thing I’m ever going to tell you, but you will get in trouble and he won’t,”’ Hough recalls. “It sounds strange to say to civilians, but she did this out of concern for me. She was like, ‘I’ve seen what will happen, I know what will happen, and you will lose your security clearance. You will lose rank. Your career is over if you report him.’” The student leader added that Hough was free to go ahead and report it, and she would back her up if she did, but Hough needed to understand the consequences fully. “I would have lost everything. So I didn’t,” she says.

The latest data from the Pentagon shows that about one in three MST survivors reports their assault. Civilian survivors face humiliation, cruel legal systems and re-traumatization when reporting rape too, but the military is its own beast. “We’re stationed places with [our assaulter]. We cannot quit our jobs, and we cannot walk away. You have to work with those people every day,” Kristina says. “Most of the time, you’re somewhere that is away from your home. It could jeopardize your career and make things a lot worse. So nobody says anything. I didn’t say anything.”

“If you report, your career is done,” Hatcher says. “The investigation is going to humiliate you and make you feel like you deserved it.” Someone Hatcher thought was a friend assaulted her while she was stationed in Germany in 2000. She was assaulted again, by a chief warrant officer who had significant rank over her, during her deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. “Your career is effectively over because you’re admitting [to breaking] General Order No. 1,” Hatcher says. “Even though it was a violation, your career is done.” General Order No. 1 lists prohibited activities for military personnel such as drinking alcohol and sexual relationships, and it’s a common obstacle for MST survivors who do choose to report. LGBTQ soldiers such as Hatcher and Hough who served during the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” era also had to hide their assault in addition to hiding their identity. “It was a very difficult time, because you were proud to serve your country, but I had to hide who I was. I couldn’t serve my country as myself. I served my country under a facade to be what they expected of me,” Hatcher says. She adds that work still needs to be done to protect LGBTQ service members and people of color. “The commercials like to pretend that the army is this big inclusive place, but racism and sexism are still incredibly prevalent.”

Despite their trauma, the veterans interviewed share fond memories of the military. “Nobody tells you to smile; you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to wear that day. It’s the happiest place for lesbians until they find out you’re a lesbian,” Hough says. Kristina recently completed a five-month program run by the VA for military sexual-assault survivors. “Everybody gives the VA this bad rap. I want to be the one who tells you that the VA has always given me excellent health care. The only thing that I can say is that the VA, which is a government entity, needs to be able to work with me in my choice in how I want to medicate so that I can recover from the things that have happened to me,” Kristina says. “I don’t get that choice because [cannabis] is still considered a Schedule I drug. I told my doctor that I was going off all my medication. In fact, she told me how to do it. I told her I was using herbal supplements instead of medication. I didn’t say specifically that I was using cannabis. I wish I could tell her.” Until the federal government takes action, vets must continue to seek their cannabis elsewhere. “Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and until federal law changes, [the] VA is not able to prescribe it,” Susan Carter, director of the office of media relations at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told High Times when asked about vets using cannabis as part of their treatment.

Hatcher now works as a clinical data analyst in a legal state, and she uses health insurance separate from the VA so she doesn’t have to worry about her cannabis use affecting her access to health care. Hough told her VA doctor about her cannabis use, and while he admitted that it probably does help treat PTSD, he can’t prescribe it.

While there are studies that suggest cannabis helps treat PTSD—and PTSD is even a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in many states—more research is needed to understand exactly how and why it helps. “The restrictions contained in federal law are clear. Some research is allowed, but must be done in conjunction with the aforementioned federal entities,” Carter explains. “If Congress wants to facilitate more federal research into Schedule I controlled substances such as marijuana, it can always choose to eliminate these restrictions.” Nonetheless, it is evident that there are legions of military sexual-trauma survivors who successfully use cannabis to treat their condition, even when it means putting their disability payments or access to medical care on the line.

“You have to literally put your life in the hands of somebody who thinks that you’re not valuable,” Hatcher says of women serving alongside their rapist. While all sexual assault is horrifying, the breach of trust and respect—principles the military is supposedly built upon—that occurs is immensely dehumanizing. Once MST survivors leave the service, which is often an extremely difficult lifestyle transition, they go on to do whatever it takes to get that missing piece back in the civilian world. “There’s a very deep sense of betrayal. When I joined, I believed the movies and the books that I read that this would be the finest brotherhood, and everybody would be accepted, and you’d have a common purpose,” Hough says. “To be raped by someone in the same uniform takes away from what you believed in it.”

Originally published in the September, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.

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