He pulled us aside into one of our berthing rooms away from the rest of the platoon and pulled three cigars from his pack. He handed one to each of us and said, “I only have three. I expect one of you not to make it. When the time comes, you pull these out and smoke them. You’ll know when the time is right.”
I sit here reminiscing some of the last words of my brother Cpl. Dale Allen Burger Jr. before he was killed November 14th, 2004 during Operation Phantom Fury. I’m now four joints into trying to sift through memories of one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, while sharing the other horrible things I have experienced during my time in war.
He is everywhere. Not a minute goes by where I’m not thinking of him or other great Marines that had their lives cut short. He was an older brother to me, he was my fire team leader, he was a good and honest man, he was my friend. It is a friendship I cherish so much. He had agreed to be the best man in my wedding when I asked him. It has now been over 11 years since he was killed. The indescribable pain of losing one of my best friends still stings exactly the same as it did the day it happened. I miss him terribly.
My thoughts slowly drift to the men who died on the beaches of Normandy and all the little islands in the Pacific. I think of the men pouring out of the trenches in France to charge their enemy and meet their fate. I think of all the wars America has fought before my time and I realize I can’t hold a candle to the things they went through. Even though our wars are years apart, an SKS round snapping over your head in the desert today sounds the same as it did 45 years ago in the Jungles of Vietnam. The sounds of combat have remained the same since the dawn of modern warfare. However intense the war I fought in, it was in no way close to the hell my fore brothers went through.
After combat, the mind, body, and soul are changed regardless of how that exposure happened. Everyone sees and experiences everything differently. Some of us can move on while other cannot. When we come home, society expects us to just let everything go. They expect us to carry on with life like nothing happened. Somehow we are supposed to mask our demons and put away the feelings and memories of walking through the gates of Hell. Somehow we are just supposed to be “normal” again.
How do you shake the image of your best friend laying at your feet, bleeding profusely out of the back of his head, struggling to take his last breaths? Where do you even begin trying to explain seeing a kitten crawl out of the chest cavity of a dead enemy combatant after it had just been eating him? Where do you even begin when trying to heal these silent but deadly wounds? How do you explain to your mother that her baby boy is gone, and all that is left is a cold-blooded killer?
I found solace in talking with other veterans about our experiences. We have each other’s back during times of war and times of peace. I found a stepping stone to a purpose when brother veterans to talked to me and cried in my arms, torn to pieces from not being able to understand what they were going through. I knew immediately I needed to follow that purpose.
My life was saved the day I found out cannabis did everything the pills prescribed to me was supposed to do. I was able to slow my mind down to think logically rather than react to most everything with hostility. I was able to start processing my experiences without getting too worked up. I was able to sleep. Finding hobbies and getting a job really helped keep my mind focused on other things. However, during the long commutes in the early, dark mornings while working in drywall delivery, I quietly wept for my brothers. I wept for the pain that the mothers and fathers feel every day due to the absence of their child. I hid my tears under the cover of darkness and was able to compose myself before arriving on a job site. I also dove head first into music. I played drums before I joined the Marine Corps, and I picked right back up where I left off as soon as I moved back home to Michigan in 2008. Soon I was in a Blues rock band touring small towns around the country. I had good friends with me and was able to play music in front of thousands of people. It was a dream come true.
Deep lacerations on the soul is the best way I can begin to describe PTSD. To me, each and every horrific sight and bad memory is its own deep cut on my very existence. Even though the wounds may seem like they’ve healed, the scars will always be there. There is no forgetting lest one gets a lobotomy. We can only hope to mend as much as we can and try to live a normal life. It is possible, but the scars never go away.
It has been very scary for me to medicate with cannabis before PTSD was approved as a qualifying condition in the State of Michigan. At any moment, the VA could have ripped my benefits away from me, leaving me lost and homeless. The pills I was prescribed were directly linked to instances of veterans committing suicide and committing violent crimes, especially against law enforcement officers. During these times of conflict, the veteran’s mind is pushed to its limits. Like all balloons filled with too much air, they pop. Nothing good ever comes from moments where the veteran loses control of himself and his mind. Regardless of how minor the perceived threat is to the veteran, he reverts back to his training to eliminate all threats by any means necessary. Hopefully, one could understand my strong desire to get away from going through psychotic episodes.
Since the beginning of my cannabis use, I’ve been able to put my life into perspective and make some logic out of most things. Along with my PTSD, I experienced something that is starting to be known as Post Traumatic Growth. After experiencing traumatic events, a person sometimes develops a higher respect and regard for their fellow man and all living things. When I started medicating with cannabis, it was so very easy for me to start making sense of most of the things I had been through. Up to the point when Dale Jr. was killed, I still had seen some horrible things, yet I was completely unprepared to lose my best friend. After that, I became an animal. My mind and soul were so twisted that I gave in to that animal. There was no longer jokes or laughter within my platoon. We killed everything we came across. There was no remorse in my heart for anything I did. There was no hesitation. If it wasn’t on our side, it died. For the fighters who were lucky enough to wound one of our own, we mutilated their bodies and set them on fire.
After cannabis, I was able to see how precious life is and how quickly it can come to an end. I came to respect all life. I found peace. I no longer wished to hurt those who tried to harm me. I was able to turn the other cheek. With that being said, I still will not tolerate any kind of pain or hurt being inflicted against those I love. I will do anything, even up to giving my own life, to protect my loved ones. I do not go looking to do evil unto others. I will protect others from evil being done to them.
Before cannabis I was angry, hostile, and scared. I tried to take my own life on two separate occasions. I’ve been in a few physical altercations with the scum of Lansing that left a few people hurt, and me feeling terrible. My marriage was ruined; my once-close family drifted apart. For Dale Jr.’s death, I blamed on myself and it stained my heart with a horrible guilt. If it weren’t for cannabis, I would have never been able to shake that guilt.
I put these things out on the table for our lawmakers (most of whom would never let their children serve in the military), so that hopefully one day they can grasp the reality of how amazing cannabis is and its incredible healing powers. Then they can start representing the people the way they were supposed to from the day they took office and not turn beautiful innocent folk into criminals.
United we stand. Divided we fall.