MT. VERNON, KY. (MainStreet) Sonia Kendrick was just 25 in 2003 when she went on an eight-month military tour of Afghanistan, but her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder didn't hit until four years after her return, a delayed onset of panic attacks and insomnia.
"I thought that I could just come off the battlefield, re-enter public life and be fine," she said. "But the reality of it is, I'm not ever going to be able to enter into the public forum." She had two children with her husband shortly following her return, but after 15 years, her marriage couldn't withstand the toll the war had taken on her as she struggled with alcoholism and PTSD.
Farming, and hemp cultivation in particular, may provide solace. Earlier in May, the 37-year-old, who runs an agricultural organization called Feed Iowa First and serves as an advocate for the expansion of industrial hemp, attended a pro-hemp event in Mt. Vernon, Ky., put on by Vote Hemp and Growing Warriors, an agricultural organization for veterans.
"This hemp is no new crop -- our Founding Fathers grew this stuff," she said. "I think that as a veteran with the education that I have been allowed to receive that I have a responsibility to my community to try to change the paradigm."
Hemp advocacy and this therapeutic bent to agriculture both come to a head in Healing Grounds, an organization started this year by Fred-Curtis Lewis, a 36-year-old vet whose brother, Mike, founded Growing warriors in 2012. Lewis was shot in the helmet in Afghanistan in 2008 while serving as a Special Forces medical sergeant, but he believes CBD, the cannabidiol found in both marijuana and industrial hemp, can help with his own PTSD. He discovered the power of cannabis while in Washington state, where medical marijuana is legal.
"My VA doc said, 'You're having migraines, you're having seizures, you've got PTSDyou've got pain, you need to smoke marijuana,'" said Lewis. "And the first time I had a migraine, I smoked the migraine was gone...That day I decided legal or not, I'm going to do it, because it makes me part of society again... whereas before I was shoving a needle in my leg full of medicine to make me sleep."
Lewis started Healing Grounds to take away veterans' pain through the therapeutic act farming, but he also endeavors to treat them with what's grown whether nutritious vegetables or medicinal applications of hemp. He's found that his desire help vets on the farm dovetails with his medic role in the military, where he was affectionately called the "team mom."
His crusade arrives at an opportune time: the first federal study on marijuana's efficacy in treating PTSD got approval in March from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and has progressed to the next level consideration of approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The FDA green-lighted the study proposal from the University of Arizona last year, but progress was stifled by lack of access to the only federally legal marijuana source in the continental U.S. a grow farm at the University of Mississippi.
About one-fifth of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, like Kendrick and Lewis, are thought to be affected by PTSD, and more than 7.7 million Americans currently suffer the burdensome condition that lacks fully effective relief. Cannabinoids can reduce anxiety and depression, and the medicinal effect of CBD could be accessed from industrial hemp, which - because of the Farm Bill passed by Congress in February - can be grown by colleges, universities and state agriculture agencies in Kentucky and 13 other states.
That's good news for Hank Barbe, 40, a veteran who met Fred-Curtis Lewis at a beard club in North Carolina. After serving in the military from 1992 to 2004 with a harrowing 2003 stint as a flight medic in Iraq, Barbe has severe PTSD. He has found tranquility in farming and smoking cannabis and has attached himself to the industrial hemp movement.
He moved to Kentucky a month ago to work with Healing Grounds, using an agrarian lifestyle to find peace of mind in mowing grass, feeding chickens and chasing goats.
"It helps me get my mind off of stuff, instead of focusing on everything that's going wrong or has gone wrong," he said. "This is hard work, and it's a good distraction."
He struggled with not having the routine and structure found in the military. He plays in a mellow rock band called Three Beards, which sounds vaguely like Counting Crows. But the divorced father of two girls found it difficult to endure the physical and psychological vestiges of war and lived with a caretaker for nearly two years.
"I like to walk around acting tough, cause I'm a big guy, but I'm really not that tough," he said. The reality is he's an advocate for industrial hemp and cannabis, because the mental health pills pushed on him at the VA were ineffectiveand even drove him to hurt himself.
"I looked at the side effects on the stuff they were giving me, and that was one of the side effects was suicidal ideation," he said.
But early this month, the DEA obstructed Kentucky's hemp research program by impounding legal industrial hemp seeds, an affront to those who believe in the medicinal boons of the plant for veterans and others. Part of the research in Kentucky will be dedicated to hemp's medicinal applications. Last Friday, the seeds were freed, and the warriors who defended the country's soil have amped up the volume in voicing their rights to grow what they want.
"It's ridiculous," Lewis said. "I literally want to kick down the door of the DEA and talk to them and say to them, 'You guys are, you're messing up'...You know we fought in the worst conditions in modern times for the freedoms we have. And friends of mine died...And for what, to come back to our own country and fight our own system for freedom that we already fought for?"
Lewis is particularly upset that countries we've fought historically are growing industrial hemp when Americans cannot grow the crop across the country.
Of the same mind is Craig Lee, 61, a Kentucky native and hemp evangelist who in the '90s set up the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative and Museum in a van and traveled the country funded by the Turner Foundation. He fought as an 18-year-old in Vietnam with the 101 Airborne Division in the second brigade of 502nd Infantry and has PTSD. He smokes marijuana to use the CBD to alleviate his symptoms, a treatment he began while in the war; however, he's upset by the resistance to industrial hemp stateside and the hindrance to tapping into the crop's CBD, a potentially useful medicinal treatment for PTSD.
"They're growing hemp in Vietnam," he said. "I'm not able to do it here. Who did I fight for. The Vietnamese's freedom, cause I didn't get mine." Though authorities put the kibosh on his hemp bedding business catering to the robust horse industry in Kentucky, Lee, who collects $2,858 a month in military disability and struggled to hold down jobs as a saw mill foreman and as a glazier, is hopeful about hemp's ability to bring healing to vets and an economic boost to Kentucky.
"I think [medical applications of hemp] is the number one thing we can make money on here in Kentucky, way quicker than we can industrial applications," Lee said. "I think the medical side of it for CBD oils and the extraction is the key, number one business to be here, cause it can save lives."
--Written by Ross Kenneth Urken for MainStreet
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