Former U.S. Navy Corpsman Jeremy Usher came home in 2003 from Iraq and Afghanistan to sleepless nights and panic attacks, with vivid flashbacks of combat, horrifying nightmares, anxiety and depression, all amid memory loss and a severe stutter.
After turning to alcohol to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Jeremy is serving probation in Weld and Larimer counties for his second and third DUIs. He's doing well in counseling and school, he says, but he faces jail time for using marijuana medicinally while on probation to manage his PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
Jeremy finds himself in legal limbo. Medicinal marijuana is the one treatment that's helped him with his PTSD, but he violates his probation when he uses it, which puts him at risk of going back to jail.
"The court systems are very black and white, and PTSD is the definition of gray area," said Jeremy, 31. "They're not acknowledging the gray area."
Jeremy -- "Doc" to the Marines he treated as a combat medic -- remembers hearing a loud snap when he was shot in the side of his head. He was on the back of a helicopter sent into a hot zone to rescue wounded Marines, and he was struck as they were lifting off the ground, leaving him brain damage that caused his memory loss and stutter.
"I think the fact that I can't remember what happened is a good thing," Jeremy said.
After a stint in a San Diego hospital and being discharged with an "OK, good luck," Jeremy suffered from extreme paranoia as he wandered San Diego, constantly spinning around while walking to make sure no one was sneaking up on him. His nightmares of what he'd seen -- an armed Iraqi civilian he killed in combat -- kept him up at night. Anything that sounded like gunfire or a mortar round would set him into panic mode.
"Fourth of July has always been hell for me," said Jeremy, who is the brother of Tribune employee Jennifer Usher.
During the next few years, Jeremy began drinking heavily and developed for the first time, a criminal history: a DUI in California, a phone harassment charge for calling an ex-girlfriend repeatedly, a protection order violation for drinking, and then two more DUIs within months of each other.
Jeremy served time in jail and was sentenced to probation in Weld and Larimer for the DUIs, and both probation sentences have been extended twice because Jeremy didn't immediately start DUI treatment classes while he was seeking PTSD treatment at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.
After a judge denied his request to continue using marijuana medicinally while on probation, Jeremy got a prescription for Marinol, a synthetic, highly expensive version of marijuana's active ingredient, THC.
Now, with his service dog Rodney constantly by his side, he's sober, succeeding in counseling for PTSD and alcohol dependency, and he's in his third year of classes at Aims Community College.
"I'm never going to be free of the flashes of the memories; I'm stuck with those for life," he said. "What I'm able to do is manage those in an appropriate manner, without just going out and cracking open a bottle."
With hands tied
As the VA representative in the Aims Community College financial aid office, Bob Small has worked with Jeremy since he started classes a few years ago. He's seen vast improvement in Jeremy's interactions with other students and teachers since he started using marijuana and Marinol, and he's concerned that taking away that treatment will stall Jeremy's improvement.
"Here's something that's helping him, but it's creating a barrier," Small said.
Small, a 30-year member of the Navy and Air Force, deals daily with veterans who suffer from the same flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety as Jeremy, and he knows their PTSD is often misunderstood by civilians. As a veteran in the legal system, Jeremy says he understands that barrier all too well.
Jeremy said he feels that the probation department doesn't understand the seriousness or scope of his PTSD. Standard procedures for probation, like a probation officer knocking on his door unexpectedly for a home visit, can send him into a world of panic. He's asked probation officers to call when they get to his house, but they say they can't give him warning.
Jerry Green , Weld County's Chief Probation Officer, said he can't comment specifically on Jeremy's case because of privacy laws, but he said probation officers work as much as possible with people in special circumstances. He said they have to turn the case over to a judge after repeated violations.
Most of all, though, Jeremy views the idea of being denied the right to use medical marijuana -- as opposed to paying about $18 per pill for Marinol -- as the worst example of the way in which the justice system isn't flexible enough for veterans with PTSD.
"It's like I'm being punished for being a little different, and I'm not understanding why," he said. Still, said Small: "The system's not a bad guy in this. Their hands are tied."
'Out the window'
Jeremy faces 29 days in jail for failing dozens of drug tests while he was using medical marijuana. His probation officer has filed a complaint to revoke his probation for those failures. In Larimer County, a judge placed him on unsupervised probation, which means he no longer has to take those tests. Jeremy fears that jail time will mean he has no access to Marinol or anxiety medication, and without Rodney to wake him from nightmares and flashbacks, Jeremy says all the progress he's made will go "out the window."
Others, including Small and Jeremy's treatment providers, have the same concern.
His doctors have written letters saying they've seen that marijuana and Marinol help Jeremy. Those treatment providers, including one at the VA, wrote that they want him to continue with his current treatment.
Weld County Jail officials say Jeremy would be evaluated individually for necessary medications. Small said if Jeremy does serve jail time, he's planning to take Jeremy homework assignments to help "keep his mind focused on his education." District Attorney Ken Buck didn't comment specifically on Jeremy's case but said that anyone who violates probation by using marijuana has to face consequences.
"They can't violate state or federal law," Buck said. "That's a court ruling. That isn't a Ken Buck rule." Buck said he is concerned about the fact that Jeremy is a veteran, and his office is working on creating a veterans diversion court. They haven't considered how to deal with DUI cases, though, "because they're so dangerous," Buck said.
"We're trying to deal with those who have served their country and who have come back with injuries in a special way," Buck said. Jeremy hopes to be allowed to complete probation using Marinol, without serving jail time. He said even if that doesn't happen, he hopes officials will find a way in the future to help veterans who get tangled in the legal system.
"I want to raise enough awareness so that this doesn't happen to guys coming out of there," Jeremy said.
I'm never going to be free of the flashes of the memories; I'm stuck with those for life. What I'm able to do is manage those in an appropriate manner, without just going out and cracking open a bottle.
-- Jeremy Usher, former U.S. Navy Corpsman ___
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