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Healing The Natural Way

As day broke over Mosul, Iraq, fog from the Tigris River flowed over the steps of the great Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque. It was a frigid morning in January 2007, and we had just woken up on the fifth floor of a bombed-out building with no windows. We rushed to get our body armor on and wedge ourselves into heated trucks. That day, we were supporting another unit conducting a route-clearance mission.

But the morning calm was broken by an explosion that killed five men and sent the truck they were riding in flying through the air. Th e explosion broke the vehicle into several pieces and deposited the body parts of each of the men in an open field.

One of them, Matthew Tyler Grimm, had been my roommate. Th e other four were Mark Daily, John Cooper, Ian Anderson, and an Iraqi-Kurd-ish interpreter, code-named Jacob. As the fog intermingled with the smoke of the explosion, I slowly pulled up to the smoldering crater, driving carefully so as to not crush my friends’ remains.

Courtesy of Chris Hieb

It was a moment of pure hell.

We found a wire sticking out of the lip of the blast site and followed it across a field to a shack on the roof of a house. Based on this finding, we concluded the building had been the origin of the explosion. Inside the house, we found a man and took him as a prisoner of war. I was assigned to guard him, and I’ve never felt more hatred and anger than in that moment.

“I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” he screamed in Arabic.

As my patience began to wear thin, an entire battalion of American soldiers converged on our location, and we began cleaning up the remains of the explosion. Th ere were no survivors. Commingled with the dust and the chunks of machinery, we found hands still wearing gloves and feet still wearing boots. Th e stench was so pervasive that later I had to burn my uniform. It was hard to believe any of it was real.

Ten years have gone by, and not a day passes when the explosion and deaths of my friends don’t cross my mind.

My Army career following this was marred with sleep problems, nightmares, anger, depression, and appointments with therapists. I tried pharmaceutical drugs, but I was put off when I saw the reality of my friends on these drugs, which turned them into numb zombies. While attempting to work on these issues, I was helplessly swept along in the fast-operating tempo of Army life, which included training for months in a remote part of the South-west to prepare us for another deployment to Iraq. I never had the chance to focus on the problems I faced within my own head, which continued into the next deployment and were exacerbated by nights filled with incoming rockets and severe injuries suffered by people close to me.

I returned from my second year-long tour in Iraq in 2010, and left the Army after serving six life-altering years. I knew therapy was something I needed to continue, as well as meditation and immersing myself in stressful situations. Still, I was unsure if medical marijuana was an avenue I wanted to pursue. I had smoked weed in high school, but with the stigma that marijuana prohibition had created, and my impending job search, I was worried that it was not the correct choice for me. I continued therapy and meditation, but my problems persisted, and doctors wanted to put me on the prescription medications that I feared. I was at my wit’s end.

Th en one day, I was waiting for an appointment at the local Veterans Aff airs hospital when a man said to me, “How you doing, buddy?” He was older, with gauges in his ears and a Combat Infantry Badge tattooed next to a rainbow heart on his leg.

“Oh, I’m pretty good. How about you?” I replied.

“Oh, well, you know, I got the full-blown AIDS — so that’s happening. Gotta go down to the Bay Area this weekend for some experimental treatment. They say it’s only for people really far along — got me kind of worried about me,” he joked in an upbeat way.

I asked him how he was able to stay so optimistic.

“Well, the weed helps me eat and get a good rest,” he said. “Everything besides those things is extra.”

I was absolutely blown away by the man’s exuberance, even though he was dealing with a life-threatening condition. He embodied the type of mindset I was trying to achieve, and I wanted to take his model and apply it to my own life. If he could make it through AIDS, I could make it through the demons I was battling. I decided that day to try medical marijuana, and six years later, I’ve never looked back.

Meeting that man with AIDS was a defining moment in my battle against post-traumatic stress disorder. I pledged to better myself, and through meditation, I wanted to fi nd a kindness in my heart that I didn’t know existed. I wanted to get back to doing things I loved and to leave my fears of other things, such as crowds, behind me. I needed to fi nd my new normal, and one day, I was tested like no other.

It was early November 2010, and the Giants had just won the World Series. The crowds were massive at the parade, with people standing on top of each other and a thunderous roar ripping down Market Street. It was intense.

Th at same intensity that created such joy within the hearts of the masses caused me great anxiety, because while I had began using marijuana at home, I was still avoiding it in public. I began sweating. It felt like things were closing in on me and that the crowd would turn against me at some point. I was feeling as if I was spiraling out of control and like I was drowning in a sea of people.

Th en, I smoked a joint with a stranger that saw my visible discomfort. He told me to calm down and that nobody was there to hurt me. I stepped back from the stressful situation with a new mindset; everyone was there to enjoy themselves just the same as I was. I realized that nobody got on BART that morning with the intention of doing me harm. I became at ease. I was able to enjoy a normal activity and did not have to distance myself from the joy of that day.

Getting back to what’s normal was my goal, and what has always been normal to me is going to concerts. My aunt used to take me to Sacramento’s infamous venue, Th e Boardwalk, for punk-rock shows when I was in middle school. Crowds are a major factor in concert culture, but thanks to medical cannabis, I am now able to enjoy concerts once again.

Every year, two soldiers I served with during my second tour in Iraq meet up with me for the second week of Coachella. Our yearly meet-ups remind us of our past and reconnect us to a world we left behind. All three of us are medical marijuana patients, and the fact that we are able to handle ourselves within the incredible mass of people that is Coachella is testament to the anti-anxiety effects of this incredible plant.

Recently, I went to the Veterans Aff airs hospital for a routine therapy session, because I will never leave the shadow of the great mosque behind me. Walking out, a man passed me. He had gauges in his ears and looked like hell had swept through him.

“How you doing?” I said.

“How’s it look like I’m doing?” he said in a weirdly upbeat yet disgruntled way. I had thought of him many times but couldn’t quite believe that it was the man with AIDS until I saw the tattoos on his legs. I turned back and jogged after him.

“Hey man, I know you probably don’t remember me, but you had a major impact on my life. How are you actually doing, man?”

Courtesy of Chris Hieb

“Well, I got an aorta that’s about ready to go, but my AIDS is fine,” he said.

“Your AIDS is fine?” I asked.

“Yeah, no worries about that at all. My heart though …”

Th e man had survived. Th e random man who convinced me of medical marijuana’s benefi ts with his “full-blown AIDS” comment was still walking the Earth, and I’m convinced it’s thanks in part to a plant that has been villainized for far too long.

I’ll never be free of the memories of my past, but I have learned to manage my symptoms, thanks to cannabis. With the additional support of my family, my dogs, and the love of my life, I have been able to cope. Without medical marijuana’s healing properties, none of this would have been possible.