PAX Veteran Spotlight: Gary Hess

PAX appreciates and supports the brave Americans who’ve served in our country’s armed forces. In honor of Veterans Day, we’re donating $15K to Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives (VAHA). VAHA works with lawmakers and medical professionals to advocate for patients’ access to medical cannabis. We also want to highlight veteran and VAHA founder Gary Hess whose story is just as incredible as the work his organization does.

Hess spent his childhood in the backwoods of southeastern Louisiana before athletics gave him the opportunity to attend a private school in New Orleans. Initially, his post-graduation plans were to attend university on an athletic scholarship to study computer engineering. And for a while, he did just that until a chance encounter in class sent him down another path—one that would alter the trajectory of his life in ways he could never have imagined.

“I'm sitting in engineering class and somebody a couple of rows up said, ‘You know what? I'm joining the Marine Corps.’ And it just clicked. I dropped out at the University of New Orleans, and I joined the Marine Corps. So it was by chance I joined.”

Gary’s military career lasted 11 years, with 6 enlisted and 5 as a Marine Corps Infantry Officer. His service came to an abrupt end on December 26, 2007. Hess’s unit was hit by a truck filled with explosives while on deployment in Iraq, and Hess sustained life-changing injuries. In 2008, he was discharged with traumatic brain injury, PTSD, insomnia, severe hearing loss, and chronic pain in his spine, shoulders, and ankles. It was just a myriad of symptoms that made coming home and reintegrating into life very difficult for him.

Not long after being discharged, Hess sought the help of the VA to address the cognitive distortions and physiological changes he’d been experiencing. Unfortunately, after almost 10 years of working with doctors at the VA and in private practices, he realized that the diagnosis and treatment plans were causing further deterioration in his mental and physical health.

“By 2012, I locked myself inside a small apartment with a dog. The dog became my senses. The effort it took to even wake up and take a shower in the morning, to leave the home was just absolutely overwhelming.”

In 2016, he made another spontaneous choice that would change the trajectory of his life, yet again: he smoked a joint for the first time. According to Hess, it did everything that the medicines were supposed to do. From that moment, he pivoted and started integrating cannabis on a daily basis through a series of microdosing. Taking this step required him to move past his conservative upbringing that framed cannabis as too taboo to even talk about.

“If I said ‘marijuana’ growing up, my father would beat my ass. Excuse my language. But if you used cannabis, you were an absolute non-performer, right? You were not going to succeed. It'll ruin your life.”

But it didn’t ruin his life. In fact, consuming cannabis had given him a break from symptoms that had been plaguing him for almost a decade. Gary had gone from singing out loud in the shower to drown out the voices in his head to feeling a sense of balance again in key areas of his daily life like eating and sleeping. It was at this point that he says he found a new mission in life. Gary believes that while we live in a world of processes, regulations and rules, the thing that drives each of those is an important human element: experience. He had plenty of that. He had experienced debilitating physical and mental ailments. He had experienced the failure of traditional pharmaceuticals in treating his ailments. He had experienced successfully managing those physical and mental health concerns with cannabis. So he took action.

Gary sold almost everything he had, locked himself in his garage and started digging into the books. During this time, he reached out to Dr. Sue Sisley, head of the Scottsdale Research Institute, to offer his assistance with her research. Eventually, Gary and Dr. Sisley sued the Drug Enforcement Agency and US Attorney General in an attempt to relax federal restrictions blocking medical cannabis research.

Later, in 2019, a chance encounter with a member of a grassroots pro-legalization initiative led to him successfully testifying before the Louisiana and North Carolina Congresses in support of medical cannabis legalization. Gary eventually became the first patient and veteran in the state of Louisiana to receive a medical recommendation for cannabis. But with the wins, came some doubts.

“I was about to reveal my soul to the world, to the veteran community. I expected there to be blowback and failure. And, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ I testified in front of the Louisiana Congress, and it was passed unanimously right after my testimony.”

To his surprise, the response to his testimonies was overwhelmingly positive. So much so that he decided to found Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives to advocate for those who came out in support of his mission. Through VAHA, Gary continues to work to increase awareness of medicinal cannabis as a viable alternative to prescription medication for post-trauma victims and dismantle barriers to medical cannabis access.

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