Having failed at a previous suicide attempt, South Florida Army veteran J.C. Ortiz was determined to succeed the second time.
It was 2009 and he had just returned from his second tour of Iraq, where he had experienced a grueling 15 months of continual combat. Four years earlier, after another 18 months of war, he'd begun suffering from PTSD. He would become addicted to opioids.
Now the plan was to lock himself with bottles of rum and pills in the bathroom of his home on the Fort Hood military base in Texas. Through the door, he would tell his wife he was going to take his own life, knowing she would call military police.
Once the MPs were on their way, he would swallow the pills, exit the bathroom, and retrieve his handgun from the bedroom closet. Finally, he would step outside and point his pistol at the MPs, who would then shoot him dead. He thought “suicide by military police officer" was a foolproof plan — a drug overdose followed by lethal gunshots from highly trained shooters. What could go wrong?
“Since I can’t kill myself because I tried before and I failed, I’m just going to take my medication and allow the MP to do it for me,” Ortiz recalls.
The plan began unraveling when he discovered his wife had hidden his gun. So he charged the MPs. They tackled and arrested him. He spent the next 30 days in a hospital. It was the lowest point in his life. “Opioid addiction ruined my body; it ruined my mind,” he says. “My marriage fell apart because of my addiction to the pills.”
He then went cold turkey and took a job as a surgical technologist. On November 5, 2009, Army Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others at Fort Hood. “Seeing that one of my own service members, a major that I’m supposed to look up to, couldn’t handle his own PTSD and decided to shoot up a soldier-reprocessing site made me feel absolutely terrible," Ortiz says. “I had survivor’s guilt, and I still have survivor’s guilt.”
Though he drank heavily for a time, today he is a much different person. Ortiz credits cannabis as well as the support and understanding he receives from Weed for Warriors, a national nonprofit organization that advocates using marijuana rather than pharmaceuticals to treat veterans. “Cannabis literally saved my life from the horrors of opioid addiction,” he says. “That is why I feel so strongly about it.”
Now that he has retained some control of his life, he wants to help other veterans, specifically those who are homeless and addicted to drugs. Studies have shown that CBD, a compound of the cannabis plant with no psychoactive effects, helps treat addiction, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder — issues that overwhelmingly affect veterans.
But because the federal government still views cannabis as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, the Veterans Administration doesn't use CBD or the cannabis plant to treat veterans. Instead, the VA doles out seemingly endless supplies of pharmaceuticals, leading to rampant opioid abuse and addiction among veterans.
Ortiz is waging this battle with the help of Nathan Maxwell, a bassist for the band Flogging Molly and founder of AO Hemp, a company specializing in CBD products such as topical creams, capsules, and tinctures. Maxwell is a strong advocate of replacing pharmaceuticals with CBD. "I've been a fan of Weed for Warriors since I learned of its existence about a year or two ago,” Maxwell says. “When J.C. reached out to us, I was like, absolutely, I love this organization; I was honored that they would want to do something with us.”
Maxwell will donate 10 percent of online profits in June to Weed for Warriors.
Ortiz says the money will go toward helping homeless veterans in South Florida during the winter. “All our donations are going to be centered towards winter clothing, hand warmers, things like that,” he says. That will be the beginning of what Ortiz hopes will turn into a national effort in helping homeless veterans as well as educating the public about the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
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Florida is home to 17 percent of the nation’s homeless, according to the U.S. Census. And the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates veterans make up 11 percent of the nation's homeless population. Ortiz says there are 3,500 homeless veterans in South Florida.
He tells the story of one of the many homeless veterans he has met through his advocacy work. The man had spent two decades in the military but ended up being prescribed a multitude of pills because of injuries he had suffered. “Because of all these pills he was taking, it dissolved his marriage,” Ortiz says. “His wife wound up with most, if not all, of their money. Within a few years of him being out of the military after 20 years of service, he had no choice but to be on the street."
Ortiz wants to help these folks. Before he discovered cannabis, he says, he would turn to Maxwell's music to help soothe his PTSD symptoms. A VA study determined music can be beneficial in treating these symptoms.
“The healing I got from [his] music during my darkest times provided the fuel I needed to be a voice for those that need to be heard,” Ortiz says. “For that, I'll be forever grateful."