Marine vet signs on for medical cannabis in Florida
By DANIEL SMITHSON | The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 17, 2018
Chris Breyfogle remembers when he came to in Haile Plantation — about 10½ miles from the downtown Gainesville, Fla., bar where small talk about military combat with a fellow veteran triggered a blackout rage.
When Breyfogle, 37, snapped out of it, he was with sheriff’s deputies. Blood dripped down his face. He was tired and confused.
Breyfogle’s friends later said someone had put an arm around him for comfort. The touch took Breyfogle to a different place. He headbutted a man and put another man into an armlock before disappearing for hours on a walk into the night.
That was years ago.
On a humid April day this year, Breyfogle met with a reporter at a metal picnic table in the Innovation Square district. His blue, collared shirt rested on tense shoulders. Breyfogle wore black, polarized sunglasses that he took off only a few times to rub his tired eyes.
He sat with his fingers interlocked in front of him on the table, seemingly tense, fiddling his thumbs.
The Chicago native was at the beginning of a journey to seek medical cannabis as an alternative to pharmaceutical medicines used to treat symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from nearly 10 years in the Marine Corps, including two active combat tours in Baghdad.
Breyfogle also was hoping medical cannabis would end his daily routine of 1,600 milligrams of ibuprofen. Spinal surgery had done little to relieve pain following a motorcycle accident. But the high dose of painkillers had done damage of its own — causing a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, thinning lining of his throat, and diverticulosis, a condition in which small, bulging pouches develop in the digestive tract.
“Years of NSAIDs have destroyed my insides and I’m going to have to live with (that) for the rest of my life,” he said. “I have to look for something different.”
The Sun followed Breyfogle as he began the process thousands of others in Florida are pursuing for the first time since voters in the state approved medical cannabis — or marijuana — nearly two years ago. Alachua County has become an epicenter of an industry expected to boom in coming years.
Toronto-based cannabis cultivator Liberty Health Sciences announced in February plans to grow cannabis in Alachua County on 387 acres southeast of Brooker.
EVIO Labs, Gainesville, will soon become Florida’s first medical cannabis testing facility north of Interstate 4. It’s under construction.
Beyond a solution for pain, Breyfogle decided to take his first step toward medical cannabis to find himself — find the pieces lost while in the military.
“I traded who I was for who I am now, and I can paint it however way I want it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how I look at my life. A piece of me has been lost forever.”
First piece lost
Breyfogle was born into a family whose men went to war, dating to the Civil War.
“It’s an unspoken tradition,” he said. “It’s not one of those things that’s expected but if you’re male in my family, it’s … it’s just what you do.”
But Breyfogle planned to break tradition. He didn’t want to go to war. He wanted to go to art school.
That was until he went to drop off a friend at a recruiter’s office and a Marine challenged him — something he wasn’t used to.
“He said, ‘I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t want you in my Marine Corps as it is. I don’t need you.’ He asked me what I could bring to the Marine Corps, anyway.
“He actually irritated me, so I wanted to show him up, of course — stupid 17-year-old kid.”
Five days after graduating high school in 1999, Breyfogle headed to San Diego for basic combat training, the start of what would become a 10-year infantry career — nearly a decade during which he said he lost bits of himself, piece by piece.
“I was going to go get a degree that made me happy, to an extent, and that didn’t come to fruition,” he said. “And now that I think about it, that really set the tone for the rest of my life.”
Breyfogle was 20 miles south of Baghdad in 2004, in the Mahmudiya District, later known as the Triangle of Death.
The district, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was torn by sectarian violence among Sunnis, Shiites and other groups.
One day during his first tour in the city of Yusifyah, his unit was working to turn an abandoned school building into a defense base. He was carrying sandbags and building cover when the enemy shot a 61-millimeter rocket in his direction.
The rocket buried itself 1½ feet into the sand — its impact throwing him and fellow soldiers against a brick wall, he said.
But the rocket didn’t explode. Its pressure only broke Breyfogle’s sunglasses, cigarettes and lighter.
If it had gone off, no one would have made it, he said.
“For whatever reason, it was a dud. It was this weird, instant shot of adrenaline to the heart. The first thing you do is make sure everything that was born with you is still with you, and then you laugh hysterically or don’t.
“I immediately went to hilarity because that was some scary sh--. You want to believe it’s a miracle that you’re still there. But then you have to find a way to dare yourself to do the same sh-- the next day.”
Breyfogle lost more pieces of himself when he saw the dead bodies, he said.
“They killed each other a lot,” he said, while rubbing his hands together in apparent discomfort. “They killed each other in ways you couldn’t even imagine.”
One day, Breyfogle’s unit found the beheaded body of a little girl, an image he said haunts him the most.
“I know there’s this psychosis where sometimes you can’t even see something because you can’t wrap your head around it,” he said. “Well, unfortunately, I could see that sh-- and I can’t unsee it.”
Breyfogle came home from war in 2005 and took over his then-father-in-law’s failing liquor store in Milwaukee.
In hindsight, he said, it probably wasn’t the best for a Marine readjusting to civilian life to be around so much alcohol.
The liquor store became Breyfogle’s new enemy — the place where he lost more of himself by gaining a drinking habit. He joked, “At least I was drinking high quality.”
“I drank because if I drank, I didn’t dream. And if I didn’t dream, I didn’t remember, and that’s what I wanted,” he said. “The days you don’t drink, you feel better, but then you run the risk of getting one of those dreams and those aren’t fun for anybody.”
Breyfogle, who had been diagnosed with PTSD, said in his dreams he would relive memories from Baghdad or his betraying mind would make up new ones.
But Breyfogle said none of those dreams compared to the nightmare of losing Abigail, his first daughter, in 2007.
He said he still remembers when doctors told him and his ex-wife that Abigail had developed a chromosomal disorder in the womb.
He remembers the day she was born with a hole in her heart before dying hours later.
He’d been thrilled to become a dad, he said, and to hold his baby girl. The feeling was devastating.
“I’ve lived a life of trauma,” he said. “But losing her, my first child, that was rough.”
Abigail’s death strained his marriage, he said, and was one reason he and his ex-wife divorced.
Losing Abigail, he said, and then his marriage, gave Breyfogle more reason to remain the “angry guy” he’s become.
He said he has made himself unapproachable — keeping people 10 feet away so they can’t take anymore of him.
Picking up the pieces
Two hours into an interview, Breyfogle still hadn’t relaxed his shoulders or taken off his sunglasses.
His hypervigilant eyes and ears, embedded in him as a Marine, sensed everything going on around him.
“I can tell you exactly what they’re talking about behind me. I can tell you there’s been four people that have walked by in the last 12 minutes, approximately,” he said.
“And the guy who was walking up there earlier with a bike — the bike he was riding is called a Quantum II. It’s made by a company called Iron Horse.”
On that day, Breyfogle, after years of working with doctors and psychologists, had just began to take the first steps toward using medical cannabis as a tool to find what he’d lost through warfare, trauma, injury and medicines he’d taken that caused internal damage. He’d met with Dr. Justin Davis, Gainesville’s first certified medical cannabis doctor.
Davis had recommended medicinal cannabis to Breyfogle and his application to the state was awaiting approval by Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use. At the time, Breyfogle had called the office many times, asking desperately when his registry card would be ready. He needed relief, he said.
“You know, the things you think you’re going to take home with you are different than what actually comes home with you. You don’t lament the actions as much. You obsess over what-ifs. You obsesses over why-me’s. Why-not-me’s,” he said. “There were times where I should have gone and I didn’t and I don’t know why. I don’t know why I didn’t die when I should have died.
Breyfogle added, (After the war), you’re left with a feeling something sore. It’s like it’s underneath a muscle you can’t get to.
“If I can use it (medical cannabis) to help with a fraction of my pain or hypervigilance or PTSD … I think I can be happy.”