When the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in January 1968, Tucsonan Dwight Graves was a Navy Seabee with the 1st Marine Division, building bunkers for the U.S. Army near the demilitarized zone.
His compound 10 miles from the border between North and South Vietnam came under heavy attack, as did scores of other U.S. bases throughout South Vietnam. But the Seabees of the sea-to-ground I Marine Expeditionary Force weren't deterred.
"We were taking a lot of mortars, but we didn't stop," said Dwight, who is now 64.
Under heavy mortar fire, Graves and other Seabees continued fortifying the Army Special Forces encampment. Their work saved lives at their extreme peril, and for that, Graves earned a Bronze Star.
He left the war a hero, but a creeping legacy of his time serving the nation soon began to catch up with him, and still keeps him awake at night with cramps and weakened legs. He has to get around in an electric wheelchair.
You see, Dwight was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to clear the jungles of Southeast Asia. The chemical has been linked to numerous kinds of cancer and nerve problems in extremities. Dwight is also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For years, Veterans Affairs has been feeding him various poppy derivatives to help him cope with the painful cramps—OxyContin to get through the day, and morphine to sleep. But the side effects suck. The OxyContin constipates him and fogs his mind.
"It makes me like a zombie," he said.
He thinks the morphine is a little extreme for getting to sleep, so he has been using pot to ease his leg cramps and help him nod off at night.
A couple of weeks ago, Dwight got caught by an unscheduled VA urinalysis. Because he had smoked pot, the doctors told him he can no longer get any controlled substances: No more OxyContin or morphine.
But an interesting thing happened when the VA cut off the hard stuff: Dwight got better.
"I feel better than I did on all those drugs," he said. "I don't sleep half the day; I'm up at 8 o'clock. My constipation is gone. My mind is clearer."
He is eating better, sleeping better, thinking better and feeling better. In fact, he seems kind of chipper about it all, now that the sleepless week of sweaty anxiety from opiate withdrawal is over.
The night before our interview, he couldn't sleep because of leg cramps. He didn't reach for morphine. He smoked a joint, and it went away, he said.
Now, the decorated war veteran—who willingly stacked sandbags under enemy fire to save his fellow man and spent the ensuing decades fending off a cascade of devastating illnesses—is highly unlikely to get the help he wants. As a 100 percent disabled veteran, Dwight asked for help covering the cost of a marijuana caregiver.
My guess? Not gonna happen.
It amazes Dwight that his doctors are willing to put him through the side effects of hard drugs—side effects that were more debilitating than the pain they help relieve—but they won't even consider the possibility of letting him use medical marijuana.
"They'll give me morphine, but I can't eat a pot brownie," he said.
It amazes Dwight, but I doubt it surprises him. It's the same federal government that won't allow a clinical trial of medical marijuana for veterans with PTSD. That study, which UA physician Sue Sisley still hopes to accomplish some day, could benefit Dwight directly. (See "Blocking Good Science," Medical MJ, Sept. 29.)
It's about time we let Dwight take matters into his own hands and, with the advice of his doctors, choose his own path, in the same way he chose his path in that Special Forces compound in South Vietnam.
Dwight Graves made good choices then.
Let's let him make one now.