Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Lulu Gonzalez envisioned a life that often seemed out of reach.
“My neighborhood was really bad,” she tells High Times. “There was a lot of gang violence. I had seen some of my friends get killed, and that was something I wanted to stay out of. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
After receiving a scholarship to attend a private school, she began focusing on her education and thinking about potential career paths. Then 9/11 happened. And at just 11-years-old, Gonzalez felt that the decision had already been made for her.
“I started hearing about enlisting in the military, and I remember thinking that this is something I wanted to do,” she explains. “I wanted to make a difference. There was this spark to be a part of something bigger.”
Although she initially thought about joining the U.S. Army, she opted to enlist in the National Guard in order to stay close to home. She would be able to attend classes at a local community college while still fulfilling the sense of patriotic duty that was so important to her. “I found that the California National Guard was going to offer me a way to serve my country, while at the same time I could have a life,” Gonzalez says. “That’s why I wanted to join.”
Her plan was to serve while studying to become a teacher.
“I wanted to help the kids in my neighborhood and show them that there was a different life out there,” she says. “I wanted to be an English major, to write books for kids, to inspire kids in my neighborhood in the way that I was never inspired.”
But just six months into her collegiate career, those dreams and aspirations were put on hold when, according to Gonzalez, she was sexually assaulted by her recruiter. While the assault didn’t take place on her college campus, the two had frequently met there. In the aftermath of the assault, Gonzalez says that even stepping foot on campus was a triggering and traumatic experience.
“It brings back bad memories.”
Gonzalez claims that she was also the victim of ongoing sexual harassment during her time as a technician in the National Guard. When she went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seeking mental health treatment, she says that since she wasn’t classified as active duty, she was told that she was ineligible for those benefits.
“I went to the VA to try to start that whole process of getting help, and I kept on getting rejected,” Gonzalez says. “So that really put me down. I was vulnerable—I needed a way to deal with it, and they kept on telling me no.”
In a recent poll of more than 1,000 service members, 66 percent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault in the military. The poll, conducted by Smithsonian magazine in partnership with the Defense Department publication Stars and Stripes and the Schar School at George Mason University, found that six percent of men reported experiencing sexual discrimination, harassment, or assault.
According to data from the VA, suicide rates among women veterans skyrocketed to more than 45 percent between 2001 and 2015. The data suggests that women who have served in the military are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as civilian women.
“Certainly a mental health diagnosis like PTSD is a risk factor for suicide,” Megan McCarthy, VA deputy director of suicide prevention, told Voice of America. “There’s some evidence that experiencing MST (military sexual trauma) is associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviors, so those that have experienced MST are more likely to think about suicide and possibly more likely to attempt suicide.”
That’s exactly what happened to Gonzalez.
“I didn’t see myself asking for help anymore,” she says. “The next thing that I decided to do was commit suicide. And that’s what caught the VA’s attention.”
She ended up going to the VA for overdosing on pills that she had taken from her husband without his knowledge.
“I don’t even know what pills he had,” she says. “I grabbed them, I shoved them, and I wrote a letter. And that’s it.”
She wound up in a VA hospital and realized that she had hit rock bottom.
“That changed my life,” Gonzalez explains. “That’s when I noticed that I needed help and that I couldn’t do it by myself. There were these problems I needed to talk about, but as a woman, I wasn’t being understood. I just needed empathy.”
So, after officially leaving the military at the end of 2016, she decided to create a safe space where that kind of empathy could exist and even flourish—not just for herself, but for all of the women veterans going through similar struggles. That’s when the Lady Veterans Project was born.
The group currently serves women veterans in three Southern California counties. Members are encouraged to attend therapy sessions and explore how cannabis can help them cope with the trauma they may have experienced during their time in the military.
“One of the things that we lose is our femininity,” Gonzalez says. “When I came out of the military, I had a really hard time dressing up and putting makeup on. Yes, it was partly because I was a victim of rape and I didn’t want to get any attention, but I was also used to using my brains to get things done and had blocked out that part of me.”
Through Lady Veterans Project, Gonzalez has created a community where these complex feelings can be talked about honestly and openly.
“I discuss these things with the women, and we all feel the same way,” she says. “We feel that we lost our identities as women, and we’re trying to figure out where we fit in with society. How do we find a place where we’re accepted for who we are? And that’s pretty much what we’ve become for ourselves.”
Considering the weight of the topics the women work through together—combat warfare, PTSD, and military sexual trauma—cannabis can help alleviate some of that heaviness.
“Women veterans are very alpha dominant,” Gonzalez explains. “I never thought that I was going to work with alpha women and have these really down-to-earth conversations. And I think that’s what we look forward to.”
Gonzalez, specifically, uses cannabis as an antidepressant to stabilize her moods and keep her energy levels in check.
“I’m very up and down,” she says. “I get triggered easily. Cannabis is a tool—it’s what gets you through the day. It’s what gets us to therapy, and it’s what gets us from therapy. It’s what gets us moving and helps us stay fit.”
Gonzalez says that some women used to turn to alcohol to cope with their trauma, but are now able to live more complete and present lives thanks to cannabis.
“They don’t want to be the way they were when they used to drink,” she explains. “Now they use cannabis to be able to interact with their kids in a healthy way and to be able to be fully there with their children—not just half there. Cannabis is a tool on their path of recovery.”
Looking to the future, Gonzalez hopes to grow Lady Veterans Project into a full-service nonprofit organization, complete with a 24/7 crisis hotline. She dreams of expanding the group’s reach and working with active duty servicewomen who may be currently experiencing hardships and trauma similar to what she went through.
Ultimately, she wants to show women veterans that they are not alone in their unique struggles and that, perhaps more importantly, there is hope for a better and brighter future.
“I want to make it inspiring and educational, and cannabis helps,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of the women have anxiety, and cannabis reduces our anxiety so that we can open up and really share without feeling judged. That’s the beauty of cannabis—we want to make sure that we’re holistically taking care of our complete selves, not just one part.”