By José Belén
Cannabis, veterans, PTSD and corporate America: Quite the mix, eh?
When I left the United States Army as a combat veteran (a.k.a. a grunt), working in corporate America seemed to be nothing but a fantasy. Society deemed me “unqualified” because, at age 23, all I had in my hands was my DD214 (a Proof of Service document), my high school diploma, and a PTSD diagnosis that, according to the VA was supposed to cripple me socially and psychologically.
Now imagine honorably fighting through 14 consecutive months of intense combat. Add three years of active duty service, only to return home and be told you don’t qualify for any white-collar job.
Having always dreamt of working for a Fortune 500 company, the news broke my heart.
‘Be All That You Can Be’
The Army often tells soldiers we “can be all that we can be in the Army.”
But, what about after the Army?
All I wanted to be when I came home was a professional. I wanted to serve in a profession of my choosing. And I thought that I would at least have the opportunity to prove my worth. This wasn’t the case at first.
Fortunately, in November 2007, I got an opportunity to prove my worth to American International Group Inc AIG as a bi-lingual property and casualty agent. I essentially begged for the position because I had no corporate experience, nor did I have the college degrees they required. But, what I did have was a surgical list of professional attributes that I acquired in my years of military service, which, if applied in a corporate environment, could provide endless possibility.
My promise to them was that I would one day be their top salesman…
Well as fate would have it, from November of 2007 to February 2017, I stood amongst the top 1 percent of direct insurance agents for AIG, AIG Direct, 21st Century Auto Insurance, and Zurich Insurance Group AG ZURVY’s Farmers Insurance. I made both corporations millions of dollars over those 10 years, with honest and true grit to get to the top and maintain positioning with all required metrics at the max level.
60 to 70 hours a week. No shortcuts.
Instead, I was using the tools I acquired in the battlefield, and applying them to a business and corporate mindset.
Veterans And Suicide
We lose over 8,000 veterans a year to suicide. This is why it is imperative to provide them with gainful and meaningful employment upon transitioning.
Had I followed my “transitioning plan,” set forth for me upon exit based on my military occupational specialty as an artilleryman, I would have only been suited for blowing up mountains to create new roadways out west. The suggestion that working that job was my best option upon coming home motivated me even more to strive professionally and internally, to accept that I suffer from PTSD, but also to understand that PTSD doesn't have me.
From the outside, people could easily assume I am just a normal guy with no noticeably physical wounds. I’m actually successful, and almost always have a smile on my face.
But that is the thing: PTSD it is an invisible wound; a wound from psychological warfare.
When veterans come home from combat it is critically important to note that what happens on the battlefield comes home with us, which is why taking our triumphs from the battlefield to the boardroom is so important to us.
I suffered in silence as I had to internalize the triggers throughout the day. I had to justify why I was so tired by explaining I did not sleep well, but I left out the part about it being because of the medications that the VA prescribed, and the many side effects they had. I was essentially a zombie, numb.
The sad part is that I knew (as we all should know) that cannabis, that holistic medicine that had been here for us from the beginning of time, was the best thing for me. The problem was, if I tested positive for cannabis, I would lose my insurance career; if I got caught using it, I could go to jail and then ruin my record and all that I had worked for.
To Be Or Not To Be
I was faced with a choice to stay on the medications that were driving me insane; go unmedicated (clearly a dead end); or use cannabis and risk losing it all.
This is what has lead me to write this article.
I wrote this article to express the need for corporations to rethink their veteran hiring practices and policies, to better understand the needs of veterans.
This article seeks to teach employers that the veterans that they are hiring should not be looked at as “disabled,” but rather as “enabled.”
It is important to note that my day-to-day cannabis use was crucial in the late stages of my career because it allowed me to function and think clearly, to be the best employee that I could be. But what wasn’t okay was feeling like a criminal in the process; all because I aspired to cleanse my body of the man-made chemicals in the form of the medications prescribed to me that were making me more likely to follow through with suicide.
Creating stable and meaningful employment when veterans finish service is imperative for a successful transition. I urge corporations to re-think their policies for hiring veterans. I believe if they operate in states where there is medical marijuana legally available, they should immediately amend their drug policy.
I firmly believe that if these changes are implemented, we will see a rise in morale and production, ultimately benefitting bottom lines. It is a win-win for everyone involved: the employer, the veteran, and the community they impact.
There are a great many things that can be done to benefit our veterans; veterans that were there for our country. Now it is time for our country to be there for them.
José Belén is former U.S. Army combat veteran and cannabis activist. He is also the founder of the NGO Mission Zero, and co-litigant against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. After resigning from his job in 2017, Jose began speaking publicly about the realities of losing an estimated 20 veterans a day to suicide. This led him to begin his nonprofit, Mission Zero, an organization dedicated to ending veteran suicide.
Javier Hasse contributed to this report.
Images courtesy of José Belén.
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