It's about 7:30 in the morning, and the sun reflects a golden hue through an opaque, dusty horizon. Heavy metal music is blaring from the marine tank convoy as it speeds down Highway 1 in Baghdad, Iraq. The Marines are hurrying back to base, after consecutive nights spent raiding Taliban outposts in the cold desert. A soldier's voice from the convoy comes over the radio, "Hey, if we speed up, I bet we can make it to base for a real breakfast!"
No other words were spoken as the convoy sped up in sync. They were not supposed to be traveling any faster, but with a rare hot meal on the line, precautions go out the window. The armored convoy executes regular lane-changing maneuvers, making it difficult to detonate an IED or for distant snipers to lock onto the moving ground targets. At this point of speeding up the maneuvers, Jeff doesn't remember what happened, except that he saw an explosion and woke up in the hospital.
A mortar round detonated in front of their convoy and exploded the tank. The explosion created a huge hole in the ground that their tank drove directly into. The remaining convoy could not see what happened in the cloud of smoke where the vehicle went. The unit set up position to cover any approaching enemies. As smoke cleared, Jeff knew that he was injured and that his driver's leg was destroyed, but the adrenaline took over. They reassembled and continued back to the base. It wasn't until weeks later when they had calmed down, that the men realized how severely their muscles and bones were injured.
X-rays revealed that Jeff had broken bones, and was even missing bone fragments in some spots. After this mission, they were not thoroughly checked by doctors, and had no reason to be as they were accustomed to being tough and not complaining. A military doctor exam goes like this: "Well, you're not bleeding, and you're able to move your extremities, and your blood work looks fine. Dismissed, soldier”. Jeff says he wasn't feeling the pain because of how long the shock lasted.
"I was living in shock and didn't know it."- Jeff Livingood, US Marines.
Doctors also appeared shocked, asking Jeff what had happened to his hands and arms to cause this, before learning that Jeff had been the victim of a mortar blast. Jeff had no option to continue his career as an active marine. His only option was to take a desk job, or leave the military. Desk work sounded almost as bad as the injury itself.
“How do I adapt to something I don't know anything about? I've never been hurt this badly before. I went into the Marines in 1996, got injured in 2004, and was discharged in 2008.” Jeff felt lost for the first few years out of the military. He found himself between jobs, and it was tough to maintain himself mentally and physically. That’s when the feelings of loss and depression really set in.
“I was hooked on my own prescription of pain pills, because the navy would hand them out at the drop of a hat. I don't even know how many I was taking or being prescribed, but it was always available. My VA hospital appointment was once a month, where they would hand me a new prescription of Percocet and Vicodin. After building up a tolerance to those doses, one day I went in for a fill on the prescription, and they cut it off cold turkey. The doctor asked me ‘Jeff, why are you even on this when you haven't had surgery in over a year?’"
Jeff was in the middle of physical therapy at the time, and getting ready for a second surgery. This was also in the stage where, after a surgery on one hand, his other hand was still not strong enough to support any weight. Jeff was helpless for months through the surgeries, barely able to cook food or dress himself.
After feeling rock bottom from the depression, Jeff began trying to seek out more alternative sources of relief beginning with acupuncture. This was not casual acupuncture needles from a local chiropractor; this was serious acupuncture sessions intended for deep chronic pains.
While these natural treatments were helping a bit, they were still not taking away all the pain, and Jeff still needed something to help him relax. There was a mental block that kept him from taking another pain medication in pill form, but he knew that he needed daily relief somehow.
The first thought about cannabis was from his friend Will, another vet that Jeff had been encountering since 2012 at the veteran center in Mesa, AZ. He was an Army Ranger and an overall trustworthy guy, who was saying, "Jeff, hey man, I smoke weed, and it works for me”.
Jeff was thinking, "What, aren't you scared? It's illegal!" After so long in the military, he was disciplined to follow every command from authority… but Jeff wanted a normal feeling and a pain-free life back for himself. Will had planted the seed, but it took Jeff another two years of suffering before he was open to the idea that cannabis would be socially acceptable. Egged on by our dear friend, Michelle Mango, a renowned cannabis chef, he finally tried some puffs of a joint and some cannabis edibles. Watching someone like Chef Mango work as a professional, formulating infused edibles for retail markets, gave cannabis medicine a sense of legitimacy that Livingood had not previously experienced.
Michelle suggested he start slowly with edibles in small doses. If it helped, then he could increase the dose until finding the sweet spot. Jeff began to feel more comfortable there was little to no risk in trying cannabis therapy, and so he gave it a shot. Having gone through almost ten years of acupuncture, Jeff thought, "what do I have to lose at this point?". Acupuncture was helping him sleep and walk again, but it didn't take the edge off his daily aches and pains.
After trying the edibles, Jeff noticed that in the right doses he didn't feel much of a high, just a relief in his muscles. His body was using the medicine with noticed benefits. One unexpected benefit of acupuncture and cannabis therapy was no more nightmares. Jeff began to sleep through the night, and started falling asleep in ten minutes rather than two hours.
"Going to sleep at 2:00am in the morning and waking up at 5:00am was not healthy.As a soldier, my body is trained to wake when the sun comes up", he said.
He started working his own farm, a modest half-acre plot of land in Gilbert, Arizona. After working all day moving tons of dirt and feeding all of the animals, Jeff expects to be sore… but he now enjoys cannabis edibles, topicals, and a few puffs of a joint for a restful relaxing recovery.
Jeff calls this a hobby farm that supplies his family and friends with eggs, meat, and vegetables from the garden. He also has cows, which families in the community reserve a portion of, and receive the meat after processing by the local butcher. There's not a lot of revenue coming in, but there's enough for the Livingood family to live happily, heathfully, and with purpose.
His current cannabis regimen is a quick smoke in the morning, and a small edible to start the day. The next day, after working hard outside, he will try to take it easy in recovery mode. It doesn't mean he can't work on these rest days; it's just about realizing the importance of recovery and balance, as with anything in life. Working on the farm also contributes directly to Jeff's happiness. Exercise, sunshine, and cannabis remain the number one treatments for his anxiety and depression above any other medications.
"High-intensity exercise causes muscles to produce lactate which gets into the brain where it plays a direct role in the production of norepinephrine & serotonin. Analysis of 15 studies found aerobic exercise and particularly high-intensity exercise effectively treat anxiety." -Dr. Rhonda Patrick
“I don't want to blame doctors. Many of them are professionals who are trying their best. But sometimes we don't need medication, we just need someone to talk to. And other times we just need DIFFERENT medication”, Livingood said. "Eating, sleeping, mood, attitude, pain. Cannabis has helped me with all of these things, and I am so grateful for my life now."
Thank you to Jeff Livingood and his family for taking the time to share this testimony with Cannabis Cactus, and thank you to all our active service members and veterans who put their bodies and minds on the line for military service. Veteran’s Day is November 11th.