One of the worst nights of Susan Barron’s career came a few years ago, when the artist was in Manhattan to unveil her multimedia art series, Visualizing The Invisible. The collection featured portraits of military veterans decorated with paint and text, which Barron designed to highlight the veterans’ struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Just before the show, Barron’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was the mother of one of her photography subjects. “She said he succumbed to PTSD and took his own life,” Barron says. “It was a punch in the gut.”
Nearly three million troops have deployed in support of the global war on terror since 2001. Of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, between 11 and 20 percent now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These stark statistics have left an endless trail of suicidal victims—individuals, like Barron’s friend, who quietly suffer the invisible wounds of combat, personal loss, or sexual assault.
22 veterans a day. The suicide statistic has been widely circulated since this data first came into the public domain. In 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported 6,146 military vets have died by suicide, a whopping 17 a day. And while that number is the lowest total since 2006, any manifestation of sympathy would suggest it stands at 6,146 too much.
It was learning about this epidemic that inspired Barron to create “Perception of the invisible,” an exhibition that, since its launch, has occupied the hallowed halls of the National Veterans Museum and Memorial in Columbus, Ohio, and the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. among others.
“I am really grateful that these brave men and women have shared their stories with me,” says Barron. “I wanted to highlight the epidemic of PTSD and suicide and help break down the stigma around mental health issues. Each and every one of us needs to do whatever we can to help. As an artist, that’s what I felt I could do.”
Barron’s photo series was shot using the classic black-and-white style that she says was “intentionally in direct contrast to the brutality of their stories.”
“They’re heroic. They’re elegant,” Barron says.
The business also proved to be a conversation starter, eventually becoming the subject of an NPR podcast and award-winning short documentary of the same name.
“This project had a lot of hands, raise it, and through it all, people I didn’t even know called me and told me what a huge difference this project had made in their lives or in the lives of their spouses,” Barron says. “Sons, mothers, grandmothers — so many family members are grateful that the stigma has been removed from this, honoring it as a war wound rather than a mental illness.”
Shattering stigmas has also opened the door to an even wider network of PTSD treatment options for veterans, chief among them cannabis.
Ryan Cooley may not be a protege of Barron’s, but his story, like countless other veterans’ traumatic experiences, is remarkably similar. Originally from Pendleton, Indiana, Cooley joined the Army in 2004 and served as a cavalry scout until 2007 with the service’s 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
Life after the service proved difficult. Post-traumatic stress affected Cooley’s ability to communicate. Depression and anxiety have become a fierce cyclical norm. His attitude and behavior soured, thus eroding his marriage and personal relationships.
Months of anger management and cognitive behavioral therapy helped Cooley understand how to manage the condition, but it wasn’t until his 2016 foray into medical cannabis — and the subsequent launch of Combat Cultivators to advocate for cannabis and PTSD — that he had a real experience. transformation.
“I had to convince my wife to use cannabis, but almost immediately, I could see the change in my attitude,” says Cooley. “I’ve been able to give more love and be more empathetic. I can focus on tasks and not be drained of negative thoughts.”
Notable changes in attitude eventually showed a genuine interest in the industry, and in 2018 Cauley set out to complete his first growth. “I was a child,” he said, smiling at the memory. I wanted to grow my own cannabis, because then the prices were more expensive than they are now. Today, we grow our own because it’s better than anything else in dispensaries.”
Colley’s childlike curiosity soon turned into a profession. He became a master grower for a company in Michigan, where he learned the ins and outs of large-scale growing, environmental control, and cloning. He even recruits his best friend from the army, Carlos Ozuna, to serve in the same role. Together, the duo launched the Combat Cultivators Instagram account as a way to connect with other veteran cannabis advocates suffering from PTSD.
And while the friends have since left the company, Cooley credits the knowledge they gathered there for the duo’s success with Combat Cultivators. More than that, however, was the remarkable difference cannabis made in Cooley’s personal life. “It gave me back so much of my life,” he says. “That feeling of doing something for a reason. It also gave me and Carlos the opportunity to work together again.”
The number of ways veterans learn to cope with PTSD continues to grow. For Barron and Cauley, using their respective platforms has injected life into a conversation about mental health that has been dormant for far too long.
The dreaded phone call Barron received that day in Manhattan is one that many veterans and military family members have experienced today. Every story is unique, but the agonizing pain of loss is undeniably similar. Preventing this from happening to anyone else, Barron says, is a calling to which we should all gravitate.
“That day was a personal low for me, but it ignited an even stronger drive to publish these stories,” Barron says. “We all really need to do more.”
This story was originally published in Issue 47 printed edition of hemp now.