Advocating for medical cannabis for veterans in need
From a young age, the male influences in Sergeant Sean Major’s life were military men. They taught him discipline and respect. While most kids would receive a time-out if in trouble, he was told to hold push-up position. Manners were strictly enforced. Service to family was prized.
A rocky childhood creates a protective young man
Despite this rigid structure, Sean’s childhood was turbulent. Raised by a single mom in rural Washington State, he was the only person of color during a time when racial profiling was common. He witnessed his retired-Airborne father become abusive and enraged because of undiagnosed, untreated post-traumatic stress (PTS). When his mom divorced, Sean and his siblings moved to the city where, despite its diversity, he still had trouble fitting in.
Sean was in 6th grade when the devastating attacks of 9/11 occurred. His teacher was a retired weapons specialist for the Air Force. Not wanting to shelter the kids, she broke school protocol that morning, showing them news footage of the attacks.
As he looked to his teacher for answers, he saw her stoic composure vanish. Silent tears streamed down her face. Sean told her “I am not going to let anything happen to you.” At 11, Sean still didn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation—but he knew America was under attack.
Unfortunately, Sean remained an outcast. In high school, he was in a racially provoked altercation in which a 19-year-old stabbed him; Sean nearly died. The drama and abuse of his mom’s relationships also escalated. He rebelled.
It was through God’s mercy, says Sean, and his grandmother’s tough but gentle love, that he found his way out of the anger and hurt. Sean knew his purpose in life was to protect. He became a Marine.
A Marine is a Marine for life
Sean says each branch of the military has its own energy: “You join the Air Force for an education, the Navy to travel, and the Army if you want to be part of the military. You join the Marine Corp to be a Marine. It is by far the hardest branch of the military, but a Marine is a damn Marine for life.”
On September 11, 2008, Sean enlisted. He completed boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in 2009, followed by marine combat training. He was stationed to Naval Air Station Pensacola as a Private First Class. In the summer of 2010, during a Pacific Rim exercise, Sean suffered his first traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Traumatic brain injury changes everything
The injury was severe. It took over a year for him to be somewhat well again, but he had undiagnosed PTS which, in addition to right shoulder, back, and joint pain, caused Sean suffering. He had trouble concentrating, experienced sleep disturbance, nightmares, and vivid memories. Sean would by hyper-reactive or hyper-vigilant, feeling a constant fight-or-flight response.
Despite all this, Sean deployed to Africa to protect the Gulf of Aden from Somali pirates in the Winter 2011. He returned the next year a Sergeant.
Sean took this new role seriously. He was tough and strict, making his platoon fear and respect him. “Marines must act swiftly to protect our nation, and they must protect one another,” he explains. “I built a family—a family committed to living and dying as one. I made true Marines, and I am so proud of that.”
Yet his untreated issues and symptoms were becoming increasingly problematic. For hours each day, Sean volunteered at Camp Pendleton’s Stepp Stables, shoveling horse manure. There, he could escape and he could calm his mind.
Symptoms lead to diagnosis and treatment
But Sean’s commanding officer ordered him to get help in the form of a 10-week intensive outpatient program. It was then—two years following his deployment—that Sean was diagnosed with PTS. Experts also discovered he had sustained a total of four TBIs during his seven years of service, and a brain scan showed permanent brain damage.
Under medical guidance, Sean began taking medication. He went to group therapy, attended anger management classes, and sexual abuse counseling. Holistic therapies, like art for healing and cognitive behavioral therapy, were also incorporated.
The Wounded Warrior Battalion
In May of 2015, his Marine Corp life changed forever. He became a recovering service member of the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West (one of two centers the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment serves). The motto of these Battalions is healing must be more than just medical. They focus on helping Veterans overcome their wounds, illnesses, or injuries through work on the mind, body, spirit, and family.
Sean’s therapy focused on education to improve clarity of mind, and daily adaptive physical therapy to strengthen his body. He learned to surf through the Jimmy Miller Foundation and honed his horticultural skills at Archi’s Acres, a hydroponic farm at California Polytechnic. The Semper Fi Fund paid for an iPad for Sean; this helps him work on sticking to a schedule. He also has a recovery care coordinator, to whom he reports to each day for additional guidance and support.
The Wounded Warrior Battalion has been a bright light in Sean’s life, helping him transition into civilian life. He credits this program for keeping him alive; countless veterans end their life each day due to suicide. Statistics show there are 22-50 recorded veteran suicides and pharmaceutical-related deaths a day, but the actual number could be significantly higher given that multiples states (including California and Texas) do not document this data.
Sean wants to obliterate that statistic. “A Veteran should not feel the only way out of the pain is to end life,” he says.
Drawing on life lessons
While he is being medically retired due to his disabilities, Sean has found another way to serve using the life lessons he gained from his grandmother and father. His grandmother taught him the therapeutic benefits of horticulture; he learned from his dad the positive effect medical cannabis can have on PTS.
Sean is uniting these interests to create a temporary transitional housing and cultivating sanctuary for veterans. Eden After Service (EAS) would be a 40-acre oasis in the countryside of Southern California, training service members to be sustainable while using horticulture as therapy.
EAS would be a refuge for veterans awaiting their VA rating and compensation. Focusing on growing healing herbs and leafy greens as well as cannabis, EAS teaches those living on the land the direct benefits of nature’s homegrown medicine.
Improving access to medical marijuana
Access to medical marijuana for veterans has become Sean’s mission in life. When he finally began to receive medical care for his pain and PTS, Sean found himself inundated with medications; he was prescribed upwards of 20 different treatments.
They just made him feel worse: he dealt with severe side effects of aggression, social withdrawal, lack of energy, grogginess, headaches, nausea, constipation, dizziness, and feeling zombie-like. “It was trial-and-error. Something didn’t work? My doctor would just prescribe something else. I was hospitalized twice, not realizing I was taking the wrong medications.” He slowly weaned himself from medicine, and now Sean only takes one medication a day and uses occasional lidocaine patches.
In October 2015, Sean paid out of pocket and saw a doctor outside of Navy Medicine, who gave him a state physician recommendation for medical cannabis use. Sean submitted this recommendation to Navy Medicine.
If the Marine Corps allow him permission to this alternative treatment, Sean will be the first active member of military to use this form of therapy (in his case, for PTS). While hopeful his doctor at the Wounded Warrior Battalion will approve the request, Sean is prepared to take this claim through the chain of command.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel
Sean tells other veteran service members: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if you cannot see it. Do not let pride get in the way of seeking support. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. As long as you make it one more day, you will never end your life.”
Sadly, Sean felt the heartache and sorrow of being stigmatized by his extended family. “It is so hard to go through this process alone. I feel abandoned by many. Thankfully, I have a very small group of people who are with me all the way. They truly love me; but I still wish the rest of my family were more understanding.”
Sean stresses the importance of family members remaining present: “Yes, your loved one has changed. But they are still the same person, and need you now more than ever.”
Humble, determined, genuine, and brave, Sergeant Sean Major is a true example of a warrior. He is using his voice to take a stand, to make change, and to save lives. Pain and PTS may be part of his life, but he is not letting that stop him from living out his dream of helping, serving, and protecting others.
“I want the conversation to focus on the positive medicinal aspects of cannabis. My hope is in 20 years, when cannabis is medically allowed in the military, that my story will be part of that history. Improving and saving the lives of military members through EAS is my mission now.”