Just Follow Orders

Published on November 9, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

By J. Brad Wilke

As a non-combat veteran of the U.S. Army, I’ve never had the need to use cannabis to alleviate or minimize the effects of PTSD. My cannabis use has always been purely recreational and didn’t begin until well after I transitioned out of the service. My military experience was more Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H than Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET. I hated people telling me what to do and I loathed the lack of agency that began as a cadet at West Point and lasted until I finally transitioned out of the service in late 2003.

Shortly thereafter, I took my first hit off a joint. Smoking marijuana was a new, and liberating, experience. And I did it every chance I could. This was before cannabis was legalized in Washington state, so there was also a hint of subversiveness to it, which made me relish it even more. I was beginning to understand what it meant to be a full-fledged “civilian,” no longer subject to a random urinalysis that, if it came up “hot” could result in an “other than honorable” discharge and the possibility of being forced to pay back the federal government for my expensive, taxpayer funded education.

It wasn’t until about a year ago, though, that I began to formally explore the psychoactive potential of cannabis to support a very personal process of self-discovery that I had been putting off for a long, long time. I wish I would have thought about doing this the day after I received my discharge papers, but it took me another 15 years to get around to it. And that’s why I’m writing this. If you’re about to transition out of the service or happen to be a late-bloomer like me, you couldn’t do yourself a bigger favor than to look inward. And cannabis can help.

When you spend enough time in the Army, it’s easy to look at everything as binary. It simplifies the decision-making process in high-stress situations by painting everything in black and white. In the real world, though, you’ve got as many options as you can imagine. But, that’s the question: can you imagine? By now, you might be set in your ways, always breaking decisions down into “Yes” or “No” binaries and, consequently, eliminating the third, fourth, and fifth options, not to mention the 14th, 15th or 16th.

These old patterns are hard to break, though. And they’re even harder when you have your ego getting in the way. If you’re not already familiar, your ego is “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.” And that’s exactly what’s holding you back.

You know what happens to be a great way to disarm your ego? Smoke some cannabis.

If you’ve never smoked before, you’re going to have to figure out your tolerance. I started with a very, very low tolerance. In fact, one of the first times I smoked (about one week out of the Army), I became so paranoid and off-kilter, I swore I would never try it again. That might happen to you, too, but don’t give in to your misgivings. You must soldier on.

For this type of psychonautical exploration, I highly recommend you get started with a sativa strain, which typically offers “invigorating, uplifting cerebral effects that pair well with physical activity, social gatherings, and creative projects.” This is the type of cannabis that is going to take you places within your own mind that you might not have access to under normal conditions.

It’s a bit like a waking dream and completely different from the experience of being drunk. When you’re drunk, you mind is clouded, and your thoughts are muddled. Sometimes you don’t remember things you did, much less things you said or even thought. When you’re high on a sativa strain (but not too high), you have a clarity of mind and a heightened sense of being in the moment. I’ll often return from a deep reverie and find that much less time has passed than I would have thought. This doesn’t happen every time, but when it does, the experience leaves you refreshed and laden with forgotten memories and insights discovered by a gently wandering mind. Just be careful not to get so far out of your comfort zone that you find yourself in a full-fledged paranoid state because that’s just not any fun for anyone.

This “sweet spot” high is often where the ego dissolves (but not in the way it might if you’re on LSD or psilocybin) and you can get real with yourself. Let your mind wander. Let any “military” mindset fall away and be open to the possibilities floating just below your conscious filter. Maybe you’ll realize that what you really want to do is go to culinary school. Or you’ll remember that great idea you had that one time for a blockbuster screenplay.

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With enough practice, you might even be able to direct your mind to specific questions or themes upon which you can focus. Unlike a dream, though, you’ll easily recall the experience and be able to further study the ideas it generated. When you become comfortable with this heightened state of mind, I recommend inviting a trusted friend (your spouse/partner, for instance) to provide prompts to help you further plumb the depths. One of the greatest insights I gathered during a “session” was initiated by a conversation in which my wife told me that I’m not a very good listener. Under normal conditions, I would have immediately defended myself, likely denying her claim and offering counter-examples of when I was a good listener. This time, though, I considered her comment for a minute or so and nodded, saying “You know, you might be right. Maybe I’m not as good of a listener as I thought.” And she was right. I constantly interrupt people and hold forth in a way that can dominate conversations. Now I’m becoming a better listener and it’s already having a positive impact on how I communicate with people.

In military circles, which are often highly conservative, cannabis has a bad name (thanks, Vietnam). It’s also still totally illegal for servicemembers to consume regardless of what state laws might allow. But, if you’re a veteran looking to expand your horizons and see the world from a new perspective, you should definitely give cannabis a try.

J. Brad Wilke is a co-founder and principal of Smarthouse Creative. Brad holds an MBA from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, a Master of Communication in Digital Media from the University of Washington’s Department of Communication, and a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He received an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Army in 2003, having attained the rank of captain.

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The Red Badge Project
The Red Badge Project
The Red Badge Project was created in 2012 to help military veterans heal and thrive. Using the creative process of storytelling, Wounded Warriors work with writers, editors, and teacher to rebuild their individual sense of purpose and unique individuality. For more information, see
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