For Memorial Day, I’m remembering former Navy veteran Ken Unger

It wasn’t a good day for catastrophically injured Navy veteran Ken Unger when I first met him in January 2011 for the first time. Indeed, it was at that time that I was introduced to the concept that some veterans were in so much pain and physical torment that there was no such thing as a good day, only pain and more pain.

Ken’s injuries stemmed from his experience in the Grenada invasion of 1983, when he was hit by a crane hook. That lead to two herniated discs, frequent muscle spasms, constant pain, and weakness in his legs. Ken also suffered from diabetes and and depression, and the VA had deemed him 100% unemployable.

When I met Ken, he had also had survived 4 heart attacks and had stents holding the arteries in his heart open. The heart attacks were a relic of the morphine therapy he’d been prescribed since the Grenada injury. Eventually, a fifth heart attack would kill him, and Ken passed on March 23, 2013.

Right before he died, Ken had accepted a plea deal after being charged with felony marijuana distribution by St. Charles prosecutor Jack Banas. Ken had turned to marijuana for pain relief after his fourth heart attack, and had started cultivating it at home as he could not find a reliable, safe, or inexpensive alternative on the black market. After his son made an indiscreet reference to his father’s “plant room” at elementary school, law enforcement opened an investigation that culminated in a SWAT raid on the Unger residence. Eventually, fearing a jury trial that would reveal misconduct by law enforcement, Prosecutor Banas offered Ken a plea deal for misdemeanor possession of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia.

This plea deal, mercifully, kept Ken out of jail, and allowed him to live out the rest of his life at home with his family (albeit in great pain).

When President Lyndon Johnson issued the May 26, 1966 proclamation declaring Memorial Day as an official holiday, he called for God’s “blessing on those who have sacrificed their lives for this Nation in this and all other struggles, and for His aid in building a world where freedom and justice prevail, and where all men live in friendship, understanding, and peace.”

Freedom and justice barely prevailed in Ken Unger’s case; although he was able to spend his last days with his family, Ken was unable to move to Colorado, California, or any other medical marijuana state to take advantage of more reliable and accessible marijuana therapeutics. If Jack Banas, elected St. Charles County Prosecutor, had understood the medical utility of marijuana therapeutics, he might not have harshly prosecuted Ken Unger, and left him and his family in peace.

Scandals over the conduct of the VA and the inability of Congress to properly fund the programs that support veterans aside are likely to continue for as long as there is a VA and Congress. Yet we don’t need to rely on Congress or the President to get more than one thing right for stories like that of Ken Unger to not happen again: they just need to end the federal prohibition on marijuana.

Indeed, right now, the US Senate considers the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, a reform that would end the prohibition on VA physicians discussing medical marijuana with veterans. If the US Senate were to uphold the values that President Johnson articulated in his Memorial Day proclamation, they would pass this reform and be eager to move forward on sensible reforms that would make life easier for America’s veterans, without any additional federal spending, regulation, or administration.

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