by Chelsea Murray
art by Scott Waters
Prologue: April 8-11, 2007, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
rom the top of the hill at Gundy Ghar, Sergeant Fabian Henry looked west to see a column of smoke climbing into the midday sky. Even from his position, almost 40 kilometres distant, the explosion that produced it had sounded huge—among the biggest blasts from an improvised explosive device he’d heard in Afghanistan.
Gundy Ghar in 2007 was a hastily built forward operating base dug into the top of a brown, featureless hill, surrounded by the bright green poppy fields of Zhari District, southwest of Kandahar City. Protected by snipers, it housed about 100 soldiers who slept in caves they’d dug out of the hill themselves, and was covered in what Fabian calls “moon dust”—desert sand as fine and thick as flour, and so deep it covered soldiers’ boots when they walked. It had been used as a military base at least as far back as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and soldiers had been dying there for decades. Military lore has it that the hill was occupied by Alexander the Great’s armies in the 4th Century BCE. Some soldiers spoke of finding human bones under the sand. Fabian had no affection for the place: “Shit in a barrel, eat out of a bag, that’s what you got for six weeks.”
Discomforts aside, it provided a high vantage point on one of Southern Afghanistan’s most violence-wracked regions. The blast was in the direction of neighbouring Maywand District, and Fabian worried for the troops on the ground there. When one IED blows, another often follows, and he knew that a combat engineer like himself would be involved in what might be life-or-death decisions about troop movements. He also knew that the casualties were probably friends.
About 20 kilometres northeast of Gundy Ghar, Master Corporal Trevor Bungay—who played on Fabian’s hockey team at Oromocto, New Brunswick’s Base Gagetown—was high in the commander’s turret of a light armoured vehicle (LAV), scanning the horizon for signs of Taliban. His LAV was one of about 20 vehicles arranged in a tight, defensive circle that soldiers call the ring of steel. The ring protected around 100 soldiers who ate, slept, and rested day after day inside, and it encircled the “anthill”—a grape-drying hut abandoned by local farmers and repurposed into a temporary fortification. Trevor’s company had been out of their main base for nearly a week on “disruptive operations,” sneaking up on Taliban at night or ambushing them after morning prayers.
Moving in the dark, they detoured around the first blast site, off the road and through a field—where they rolled over a second bomb. And then, says Fabian, “you could hear them explode.”
At 1:30 in the afternoon, Trevor and his company heard the explosion too—a low, earth-shaking rumble far to the west. Distant, but big. Trevor knew that Hotel Company—based out of Gagetown, like his own India Company—was in Maywand District, and he braced for the news to come.
Within minutes his comms radio came alive with chatter, but few details. Down in the ring soldiers gathered around another radio to listen and wait. An hour went by before the news came in: six “VSAs”, or “vital-signs-absent”. Six dead. Trevor and his company knew they would be friends, but wouldn’t learn their names until the following day: Six men, most from Gagetown, who had run over an IED buried in the road. The blast ripped their LAV, armoured in NATO-grade ballistic steel, to pieces, killing Sergeant Donald Lucas, Corporal Aaron Williams, Private Kevin Kennedy, Private David Greenslade, Master Corporal Christopher Stannix, and Corporal Brent Poland. The Easter Six. It was the largest single-day loss of life in the Canadian mission to that point, an exclamation point of loss and violence punctuating a year saturated with it.
A ramp ceremony was held for the dead soldiers the next day, their caskets carried into the belly of a military aircraft for their final flight home.
And then it was back to work.
Fabian’s next mission was a two-day operation spent clearing IEDs with a convoy of Royal Canadian Dragoons west of Kandahar. Late in the afternoon on April 11, they were heading back when one vehicle rolled over an IED on a road that had been cleared the previous day. No one was injured, but with daylight rapidly fading, the road couldn’t be re-checked until morning. Fabian was responsible for making sure everyone stayed put until daybreak.
Somewhere along the chain of command his instructions broke down. Around 8 pm, four of the men ahead turned around to be closer the group. Moving in the dark, they detoured around the first blast site, off the road and through a field—where they rolled over a second bomb, placed under water in an irrigation ditch. And then, says Fabian, “you could hear them explode.”
When he got to the blast site, less than a kilometre from the first, there was a mad rush to get the driver, still alive, out of the desert as soon as possible. “I’m on one knee with an infrared glow-stick for a helicopter to land to pick up one VSA,” Fabian says. “One guy was still alive, which was Trooper Pentland, and by the time he got onto the helicopter, they were taking away two VSAs, so that was the fucking pill I had to swallow that night.”
Ten years later, recalling the moment, Fabian moves through the details quickly: “Do a ramp ceremony the next day, and then carry on with the mission. That’s three months in. You don’t even think about it. You get up and go on to the next mission, and the next, and the next…you eat in the dirt, you shit in the dirt, you live in the dirt, and you fight every day. And it’s just like, ‘this is what I’ve got to do’. And it’s fucked. And you don’t even know why you’re doing it.”
ithin the first few minutes of Restrepo—a documentary about an American deployment in Afghanistan’s volatile Korengal Valley—a staff sergeant looks off to the side of the camera, his face framed uncomfortably close during a talking-head interview. Almost without expression, he says: “They’re gathering intel right now basically on how to deal with us because they haven’t, there’s no really research or intel on how to treat us right now because they haven’t had to deal with people like us since World War II and Vietnam. You know, dealing with guys that are coming back from 15-month deployments with as much fighting as we went through.”
The soldier was describing how unprepared the American military was to take care of troops returning from an unexpectedly violent war. Though Canadian military deployments in Afghanistan were half as long (Canadian troops typically spent between six and eight months per tour in Afghanistan), the intensity of fighting was similar. The Canadian Forces lost 158 troops in 10 years. Of his own experience in 2007, Fabian says, “we lost 24 guys in six months, and it was a shit show.”
2006-07 was a turning point in Afghanistan. The conflict transformed, abruptly and viciously, into something the Canadian military hadn’t experienced since Korea. Canada entered the mission in 2002, and in the following four years, eight Canadians died there. 36 died in 2006 alone, followed by 30 in 2007 (including the April 8 and April 11 bombings), and 32 in 2008. The dying continued like this until Canada pulled out in 2012. In vastly greater numbers, soldiers returned home struggling to cope with what they had seen and done, unable to reconcile who they had become with who they had been.
Fabian and Trevor both began to manifest their first symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—rage, flashbacks, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts—after that 2007 tour. Both spent time in the Joint Personnel Service Unit (JPSU), a special unit created in 2008 to rehabilitate injured troops, which was quickly overrun by demands on its extremely limited resources. Both felt they got little of value out of it, cast aside by an institution they’d given their lives to. “The Canadian Armed Forces are a well-oiled machine,” says Fabian, “and if you’re not well-oiled, you will be replaced.”
Retired master warrant officer Barry Westholm, who served as sergeant-major with the JPSU in Eastern Ontario before resigning in 2014 in protest of its failures, describes the experience of Afghanistan veterans as one of betrayal: the military breaks down civilians during basic training, and rebuilds them in a family of soldiers. When they return home, the family disintegrates. When they return home with PTSD, the family turns its back. Soldiers can be discharged before becoming eligible for their pensions, without a provincial health card, and without any experience navigating the civilian health system.
It was into this vacuum of care that Fabian and Trevor re-entered civilian life. And it was to fill that vacuum that they, like many of Canada’s more than 3,500 Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD, turned largely to others like themselves for support. Five years after Canada’s Afghanistan mission ended, thousands of veterans rely at least in part on an ad-hoc support system created by and for ex-soldiers, ranging from small-town support groups to private businesses and national charities.
Fabian is one of those ex-soldiers. He has no medical background. He has, he’ll tell you, “fucking grade 12.” But he has an evangelical faith in the only medicine that has worked for him: medicinal cannabis. In less than two years, assisted by an array of small-town veterans and volunteers—including Trevor, before they went their separate ways—he built a company that changed how hundreds of Canadian veterans treat their illness. He helped set off a surge in costs to the military of an anecdotally powerful but medically unproven treatment. And he almost singlehandedly turned a tiny New Brunswick town into Canada’s epicentre of medical pot.
hirty-seven years old, Fabian grew up in a coal-mining family in Scotchtown, Cape Breton, where he loved playing hockey, and according to his father, Fabian Sr., was a leader, always looking out for others: “I always told him: don’t pick a fight, but don’t run.” Tall but stocky, with soft-green eyes and a thick black beard, he can be both kindly and harsh, his demeanour shifting dramatically from lively to loving to livid.
Fabian ran out of money after his first semester at Cape Breton University in 1998, so he moved to Shilo, Manitoba, where his uncle helped get him a civilian job at the town’s Canadian Forces base. He started playing hockey with some of the soldiers there, who encouraged him to sign up—they told him the army was just like camping, plus he could play all the hockey he wanted and get paid. He was 20 years old. He deployed six times, to Eritrea, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Haiti, over the next 10 years.
He knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped off the plane in Fredericton in 2007. It was like he wasn’t in his own body anymore. Paranoia would foil him even on simple trips to the grocery store. He’d leave the check-out line, if he made it that far, because he couldn’t stop watching for some unseen threat to detonate. It was like time was being distorted, the present and past overlapping. “You get some sort of tunnel vision type feeling, and you can’t think outside that event, or that neuro pathway,” he says. “And you just can’t think what’s happening in your head isn’t really in front of you.”
He remembers taking a trip that year with his then-wife and his daughter, Myra, driving from Oromocto to Cape Breton to visit family. They had only been in the car for an hour when he and his wife, who was sitting with Myra in the back seat of their pickup, began arguing. He can’t recall why, but suddenly he just couldn’t take it—the anxiety and anger and the screaming pressing in on him. “The noise wouldn’t stop and I wanted to drive the truck into the woods with my family in the vehicle to make it stop,” he says. Instead he slammed on the brakes, leaving the truck and his family in the middle of the highway. He began running, alone, back toward Oromocto.
Still, he kept working. Hiding weakness wasn’t simply about pride, but about keeping his job. If you’re not capable of deploying, you’re not capable of being a soldier, so Fabian went on one more tour, to Haiti, in 2010. He drank heavily and “terrorized” the country for each of the 59 days he was there. “If it wasn’t for having a good section 2IC [second-in-command], we would have been fucked.” He got pulled off the tour after refusing to take his anti-malaria pills and getting so sick he started hallucinating. Once he recovered back in Gagetown, he was sent to the JPSU, where he felt tossed aside. A Canadian Forces Health Services psychiatrist prescribed him clonazepam; it did nothing. He kept drinking, and time passed in a blur.
The JPSU has been under repeated review since a military ombudsman’s report on its failings in 2013. A 2016 ombudsman’s report on the Forces’ medical-release process, by which veterans are medically discharged from service, stated: “The transition process is based on how the Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada conduct business—as opposed to being designed to serve the needs of the members. It is neither timely nor responsive to their needs.”
One staff member at Barry Westholm’s Base Petawawa was responsible for helping 70 troops and their families. Three of his own men committed suicide while serving in the unit. “JPSU as an idea on paper is brilliant. It was a branch over that gap everyone keeps talking about,” says Westholm. “But it was so flawed in its management that what could you do? And everyone suffered.”
The military has recognized some of these failings. It plans to increase staff and work more closely with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to streamline the transition to civilian life. How much really changes, and what impact those changes have, remains to be seen. The unit lost two commanding officers in 2017 alone, both of whom resigned after less than six months on the job. In an interview with The Deep just weeks before his resignation, the most recent of the two, Brigadier-General Shane Brennan, admitted to a kind of defeat: “I don’t think we understood the complexity and the magnitude of the problem fully.”
sk Trevor about his time in Afghanistan, and he’ll say he’ll tell you anything. He’s frank, almost deadpan about horrific things. Raised in La Scie, an outport on Newfoundland’s northern coast where his parents were Salvation Army officers, he now lives in Fredericton, where he’s recently worked as a realtor. He’s a self-published author who wrote a children’s book for his son, called Where My Daddy Works, about having a father in the Forces. He’s muscular, still military-fit, with a full sleeve tattoo of an angry skull filling more than half of one forearm. There’s a spade on the inside of the other. He’s approachably handsome, and practiced at telling people his story. But there are moments, in the middle of a story about the war, where his face will go slack; he’ll lean forward in his chair and take a second before continuing.
He remembered the time he brought a severed arm back to base so it could be finger-printed—the intelligence officer asked him if the next time, he could bring back an eye.
Trevor’s “first kick at death” came in 1998. He was 20 years old, in the immediate response unit out of Gagetown, when he was deployed to beach-comb for bodies at Peggy’s Cove after the crash of Swissair Flight 111. Then came a string of NATO and UN peacekeeping tours—Bosnia, Eritrea, and Haiti, before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2012.
Back home, soon after the 2007 tour, the same few visions began appearing whenever he closed his eyes: The first time he was shot, near Panjwaii, and the spray of bullets striking up puffs of desert sand around him. The adrenaline rush that seared through him when he first fired his rifle at another human being. The stiff leg and foot of a Taliban fighter, sticking out of a grape field, and the RPG beside it. The wrecked bodies of four Taliban fighters after a bomb blast, and he awkwardly holding up their torsos so another soldier could take pictures of their dead faces for intelligence. The time he brought a severed arm back to base so it could be finger-printed—the intelligence officer asked him if the next time, he could bring back an eye.
As time went on, those gave way to visions of his son, then four years old, falling out of a window, breaking a leg. That was the thing he really couldn’t shake.
He became volatile, raging at any minor provocation, afraid he would kill himself or someone else. One day he was driving with his then-wife in his Jeep TJ in downtown Fredericton when he cut off a middle-aged man on Queen Street. The man gestured angrily, all the trigger Trevor needed. He followed until the man pulled over, then got out of his car and marched over. Before the other driver had a chance to fully open his door, Trevor slammed it shut. “If you get out of that car,” he said, “you’ll never walk another step for the rest of your life.” Retelling this story almost a decade later, Trevor says, “He never did a fucking thing wrong.”
After the 2007 tour, Trevor’s parents noticed little changes in him, and in his brother, who’d served in the same company (a PTSD sufferer as well, today Trevor’s brother lives at home, in La Scie). He was tense, snappish, and quiet. “When you go into a situation where you need to shoot a weapon in order to protect yourself, that doesn’t jive. That’s not the way we’re programmed,” says his father, Glendon. “We resigned to the fact, well, okay, in that kind of environment, they couldn’t come back like they went over.”
Trevor became addicted to Oxycontin, went back to Afghanistan twice, said nothing. He took sleeping pills to kill the nightmares—so many that once he finally did fall asleep, not even his son, looking to be tucked in again after a midnight trip to the bathroom, could wake him. He took so many that he didn’t remember smashing his hand through a vase and falling down the stairs in his house, waking up the following morning covered in blood. He took so many that he woke up another morning on the couch, an empty whisky bottle beside him and a loaded shotgun on the floor—he hadn’t been able to pull the trigger the night before. After Trevor was finally diagnosed with PTSD, he asked for a desk job, somewhere he could take some time to heal, but still be useful. When the military said no, he asked to be sent to JPSU, and spent five months there before being medically released in March 2014.
he first time Fabian used cannabis was in the garage of his military-issued bungalow in Oromocto, in 2010. His sister had been begging him for months to try it, and he’d always scoffed. The military frowned on cannabis use. But the side effects of his nine daily pills were making his symptoms worse. He couldn’t sleep. He was haunted by constant nightmares and flashbacks. He suffered from erectile dysfunction. He either felt like a zombie or was consumed by rage: In 2008, he was charged with drunk driving and for threatening to kill the Oromocto fire chief. He choked a dog he was walking for a return-to-work program with the SPCA. He slapped a kid in a computer workshop.
Finally, he asked his neighbour’s teenage son to get him some pot. “I was a straight army guy,” he says. “I didn’t know how to get it.”
He ended up smoking too much (“greening out”) and vomiting. But the feeling of relief, he says, was instant: “I felt like the whole world lied to me. My whole body relaxed for the first time in three years, so I was like, what is this? Why are they making me take fucking clonazepam?”
Fabian began diving into the modest body of research then published on PTSD and marijuana. What he discovered changed the way he thought about his illness, and how to heal himself and others. It became the foundation for his new mission.
he human body produces its own cannabinoids—chemicals like THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. These bind to neuroreceptors in the brain and help regulate things like appetite, pain, mood, and memory. One of the brain’s principal cannabinoids is anandamide, the name of which is derived from the Sanskrit word Ananda, meaning “extreme happiness, one of the highest states of being,” according to the Oxford dictionary. The use of marijuana to treat PTSD symptoms is in part based on the theory that sufferers have lower levels of naturally occurring anandamide. Introduce external cannabinoids to the body, and they’ll slide right into those neuroreceptors, mimicking what’s missing.
For Fabian, this isn’t a theory. It’s life.
After 2010, he started researching marijuana and its relationship to PTSD. In 2013, he spoke with Dr. Alexander Neumeister, a psychiatry researcher at New York University (NYU), who had conducted a brain-imaging study suggesting a “biological footprint” for PTSD—that low concentration of anandamide. Neumeister’s early research made headlines, but in 2016, he resigned after a scandal involving inaccurate case histories, falsified records, and poor oversight of study participants. NYU threw out his in-progress work.
This points to one of the major problems with marijuana as a treatment for PTSD symptoms: while the anecdotal evidence supporting its effectiveness is impressive, it hasn’t undergone the years of study and trial that new drugs typically see before approval by Health Canada. Marijuana is not a Health Canada-approved drug, though court decisions have compelled the agency to provide medicinal access to it, mostly through licensed producers, and VAC has reimbursed veterans for some medical-marijuana costs since 2008.
There have been no clinical trials completed in Canada on marijuana as a PTSD treatment, though the University of British Columbia and cannabis producer Tilray are currently conducting one. Another clinical study is being developed by VAC and the Canadian Forces, using brain-imaging machines at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. For now, there remain outstanding questions regarding the mechanisms by which it works, for what proportion of PTSD sufferers it’s effective, its long-term and side effects, and the potential for dependency. Some researchers believe—and Health Canada warns—that there may be a link between cannabis use in adolescents and psychosis, depression, and schizophrenia. Heavy long-term use could also affect memory.
But it’s the only thing that’s made Fabian feel even close to normal again. “There isn’t a pill on the planet that can replace that receptor,” he says.
fter he was medically released in 2012, Fabian gave part of his Forces disability pension—$37,000—to his friend Michael Southwell, a former combat engineer turned military plumbing-and-heating specialist who was still in the Forces at the time. The idea was to open a Pita Pit franchise in Saint John, but the renovation costs for the building they were looking at were too high. Fabian decided instead to use the money to buy 10 pounds of Bubba Kush cannabis from British Columbia. With his medical supply for the next two years taken care of, Fabian started helping friends figure out their VAC reimbursement paperwork, and word spread through the army town. Soon Fabian was meeting with veterans he didn’t know at the Sour Grape Café on Oromocto’s main drag, Restigouche Road, filling out their VAC paperwork.
“I asked a couple of my friends what they thought about starting a company called Marijuana for Fucking Trauma,” he says. “We all got post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re all using marijuana. They didn’t want nothing to do with it, so I started doing it on my own.”
In 2012, Fabian proposed a partnership with Michael, who took two weeks to think it over. “I was still in uniform, on the way out. Fabian didn’t have any money. He was having a rough go back then. I didn’t actually know if, prior to cannabis, Fabian was going to live,” says Michael. “And then I saw the dramatic change in him when he started using cannabis. He started being very positive, he started doing yoga, he was very loving.”
"I asked a couple of my friends what they thought about starting a company called Marijuana for Fucking Trauma...They didn't want nothing to do with it, so I started doing it on my own.”
Michael decided he’d give the business a go, and fronted $25,000 of his own. Marijuana for Trauma (MFT) opened in October 2013 in a small office in Oromocto, establishing relationships with doctors and licensed cannabis producers who paid MFT for “cannabis education.” MFT also connected veterans with doctors who could prescribe cannabis, sometimes over Skype. After clients got their prescriptions, cannabis educators—volunteer veterans as well—went over the ins and outs of particular strains and how to consume the drug, whether by vapourizing, smoking, or eating.
MFT’s recovery model eventually included some other elements of Fabian’s personal wellness regimen, such as yoga workshops, meditation, and art therapy, some of which he’d encountered at Ontario’s Homewood Health Centre, where he’d earlier spent time in treatment for alcohol abuse and PTSD. “I’ve done so much recovery on my own mat. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. I’ve processed,” says Fabian.
He became a student of pop-philosopher and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, and looked to understand himself through entheogenic therapy (a therapeutic practice involving psychedelic drugs), and conscious awareness—being aware of being aware, essentially, which Fabian likens to a soldier’s hyper-vigilance, applied to meditative ends. He acknowledges that marijuana may not work for everyone—but he also says that bad experiences with the drug are often caused by the wrong dosage or strain, and insufficient education. At the very least, he says, “our primary objective is to have access to cannabis for every veteran in the country.”
“MFT sort of started like a boys’ club. We had guys like Fabian and myself, both diagnosed with PTSD...it was the same with the rest of the volunteers we had.”
Trevor, at the time, had just returned from his final tour and was living in nearby Fredericton, where he was strung out on 22 pills a day, and unable to keep his mind from thoughts of suicide. He’d been on a career course in the military, but during an exam to become a warrant officer, he blacked out and put a keyboard through a computer monitor. He came to with tears streaming down his face. It was the first time he admitted he needed help. At the funeral of a friend who’d committed suicide, he watched the man’s little boy throw himself on the coffin, sobbing, and thought of his own son. He started seeing his psychologist once a week. He hadn’t really been able to cook meals for himself, so he got a nutritionist to help him get healthy again. “I did it on my own,” he says. “And from there I started on medical cannabis.”
MFT helped him with his VAC paperwork after he was released. Once he got his symptoms under control, Fabian and Michael started thinking about bringing him on board as head of security for a planned cannabis-production arm of MFT.
“MFT sort of started like a boys’ club,” says Michael. “We had guys like Fabian and myself, both diagnosed with PTSD. I was released from the military because I couldn’t deal with the stressors at work. And it was the same with the rest of the volunteers we had.”
“All of our chapters are all veteran volunteers: veterans helping veterans,” says Fabian. “We’ve had to take care of ourselves for a long time.”
FT had become a community of peers holding each other up—and in less than a year, the emerging epicentre of a massive surge in veteran cannabis use.
In 2008, VAC reimbursed five veterans nationwide for medical marijuana, at a total cost of $19,000. By the 2012-13 fiscal year, that had crept up to 68 veterans, at a cost of $284,000. In 2014, Health Canada started allowing all physicians, not just specialists, to prescribe up to 10 grams per day. The result was immediate: costs climbed to $5.2 million in 2014-15, $20.5 million in 2015-16, and $31 million from April to September 2016, the most recent figures available. And in the past three years, one community has stood above the rest: Oromocto.
VAC tracks cannabis prescriptions by “forward sortation areas,” identified by the first three digits of a postal code. In the 2015 calendar year, reimbursements to the E2V sortation area—MFT’s home base, the town of Oromocto and the surrounding countryside—totalled nearly $2.6 million. That was nearly 13 percent of the national total, to a community of fewer than 15,000 people. Add in nearby Fredericton and its bedroom communities, and the number climbs: $7,693,462 in total for York, Sunbury, and Queens counties, encompassing Fredericton, Oromocto, and Base Gagetown—more than 37 percent of the national total. The rest of New Brunswick only claimed $232,000 altogether, for a provincial sum of $7,925,545—39 percent of the entire country’s VAC cannabis reimbursements, almost entirely to one tiny metropolitan area, in a province with two percent of the country’s population and fewer than five percent of veterans.
This wasn’t a one-year blip: in the first four months of 2016, New Brunswick again accounted for an enormously disproportionate percentage of national costs, at 30 percent, with Oromocto and surrounding area alone at nearly 10 percent.
“We were able to help hundreds of veterans in New Brunswick, and people started driving from everywhere to come see us,” says Fabian. But his ambition for MFT was bigger still.
In mid-2014, a business opportunity came along that fit right in with that ambition. Fabian and Michael approached Denis Arsenault, then CEO of New Brunswick-based cannabis producer OrganiGram Inc., about becoming one of MFT’s cannabis suppliers. Arsenault had another idea: he wanted to create a full-service clinic to treat veterans. That year, Fabian, Michael, and Arsenault started working on what would become Trauma Healing Centers (THC). Soon, Kyle Atkinson, a former pharmaceutical rep from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, came on board.
Where Fabian freely admits that he built MFT haphazardly, Atkinson—today THC’s president—was meticulous in putting together the new company. He saw an industry ready to boom. He says he wanted to help veterans, but he was able to do it with greater business acumen than Fabian and Michael alone, making THC as clinical in appearance as possible, and making its brand palatable to government, insurance companies, and everyday Canadians. Atkinson wanted THC to be the cannabis company Veterans Affairs would trust. The company’s acronym might be THC, but its logo is softer: a medical cross with rounded corners and a hand cupping a generic leaf.
Besides his pharmaceutical experience, Atkinson has worked with New Brunswick tech start-ups including Radian6 and Salesforce. He didn’t yet know much about the medical cannabis world when he was asked to lead THC, but he says, “I knew there was something significant there.” He also didn’t know much about the military. That’s why, at Fabian’s recommendation, he hired Trevor as vice-president.
“I was looking for someone who could fill a role, which is basically to be the face of the company,” says Atkinson. “We needed someone in particular with PTSD or a chronic condition that people could relate to. He’s our guy.”
Trevor says it was a steep learning curve: “Not only did I not have a medical background, I didn’t have much business either. I was a guy who graduated high school and joined the army a year later.” But Trevor is outgoing, unabashed about telling his story over and over, and he can stay on-message. He’s spoken on behalf of the company to the federal government’s standing committee on veterans affairs, and became the de facto point person for media after his friend Lionel Desmond killed himself, his wife, his mother, and daughter earlier this year. “I get healing from healing,” he says. “I want clients to come in, I want them to get well, and I want them to go to the next guy and say, ‘these people saved my life.’”
THC was to specialize in a multi-disciplinary approach to PTSD treatment, in which each patient’s treatment regimen looks like a wheel with many spokes holding it together. It would be up to the patients to determine, with their THC-employed physician, how many spokes—like regular therapy sessions, a cannabis prescription, yoga or massage therapy—they need in their personal wheels. Where MFT depended on volunteers and community, THC hired physicians, psychologists, dietitians, and massage therapists. Its first location opened in Cole Harbour in January 2015.
“We needed someone in particular with PTSD or a chronic condition that people could relate to. He’s our guy.”
By mid-winter, however, the partnership had already started falling apart. By July, Michael and Fabian had filed a lawsuit alleging that Atkinson and Arsenault had used confidential information about MFT’s business to develop THC, then tried to cut them out.
Filed against Arsenault, Atkinson, OrganiGram, and THC, the suit claimed that an OrganiGram employee shadowed MFT’s operations, and that MFT provided to Arsenault a confidential business plan, with the understanding that it would be used in their new joint venture. But then, it alleges, when Fabian and Michael asked to see signed ownership documents proving that they owned 10 percent of THC, they were refused. It claimed that OrganiGram then terminated MFT’s contractor agreement.
In lawsuit case files, Arsenault claims he terminated the agreement because he belatedly discovered that MFT had entered into exclusive agreements with other medical-cannabis suppliers. He and Atkinson say that Fabian and Michael simply breached their agreements with THC and walked away. They allege that in January 2015, the MFT co-founders sent them an email message stating that MFT and THC were competitors rather than partners.
“They were concerned about us and decided to sue us because we’re doing something they consider similar to them and a threat to their business, apparently,” says Atkinson.
“I believe they were worried about MFT’s success, and that it was going to be competition for Trauma Healing Centers,” says Michael. “That wouldn’t have been the case: even though we were going to work independently, we were going to help each other out. I don’t know how it all went astray, but it did.”
“This fucking industry has got a bunch of sharks in it, let me tell you that,” says Fabian.
Trevor kept working with THC, and he and Fabian stopped talking. When it comes to cannabis treatment, Trevor says he has a more moderate view of the drug than that espoused by MFT, and THC was a better fit. “You need to be put into a wellness program and work at it,” says Trevor of PTSD sufferers. “Cannabis is only one piece.”
Together, Atkinson and Trevor continued developing and expanding THC. Atkinson insists OrganiGram was never involved at all in the company, until this April, when OrganiGram Holdings announced it was purchasing the chain of clinics.
Today, THC has eight clinics in Atlantic Canada and Ontario that cater to veterans, first responders, and police officers. They promote holistic alternative health plans, and recently received special designation with Blue Cross as a multi-disciplinary clinic for military and RCMP veterans. The clinic’s medical director, Dr. Andrea Burry, gives presentations to physicians nationwide about the ins and outs of prescribing cannabis.
Last fall, MFT merged with Abba Medix Group, and together they both now fall under the umbrella company Canada House Wellness, of which Fabian and Michael own 51 percent through the merger. The new MFT, with Michael as vice-president, is in the midst of turning the business into a clinic-based model like THC, and it’s expanded to 15 locations in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Alberta.
“I realized our injured veterans couldn’t do any more,” says Michael. “I couldn’t do any more, so we had to hire professionals to take our place.” He refers to the new MFT as a more “clinical and credible” outfit.
“Veterans with PTSD can’t really run a clinic…it’s overwhelming,” says Fabian. He retains an ownership stake in the new MFT, but he doesn’t work for the company. “I have fucking Grade 12. It’s gone past the level that I’m able to manage and do.”
Canada House is in the midst of an approval process to earn a cannabis-producer license from Health Canada. If successful, two Health Canada-licensed producers will own two of the clinical outlets that thousands of Canadian veterans trust most when they feel forgotten by the military and the health-care system. Canada House will be one, and OrganiGram—still dealing with the fallout of a tainted-pot scare last year, after some of its products were found to be contaminated by pesticides—will be the other.
Fabian and Michael’s cash profits and shares from the acquisition will go toward their Global Alliance for Veterans Fund, which will fund other veteran charities, as well as their own MFT-affiliated charity, Veterans for Healing. This is where Fabian’s heart lies now.
n December 2016, Fabian strapped on a 10-pound backpack and started walking west. Every morning, he tucked his beard under a face mask and wore ski goggles to keep the wind and blowing snow out of his eyes. He had 1,200 kilometres to cover between his starting point in Oromocto and his final destination: a protest on Parliament Hill on May 18, 2017, three days before VAC was to pass new regulations limiting veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
Last November, VAC announced that it would be reducing medical-cannabis reimbursements, from a maximum of 10 grams per day to three, in part as a response to skyrocketing costs. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said at the time, “I was shocked to learn that the former government began reimbursing veterans for cannabis with no policy in place.”
Former NDP MP Peter Stoffer—who last year took on a role as public-affairs advocate with THC—told CBC that “10 grams a day is an awful lot of marijuana to give one person. It is an incredible amount.” (After some outcry from THC clients who felt Stoffer’s statement was supportive of VAC’s cutbacks, the company issued a statement suggesting that the comments had been taken out of context—but also clarifying its preference for a “start low” approach.)
Fabian, who uses up to 15 grams per day, was enraged. Until there’s more research on the relationship between PTSD and marijuana, he wants the government to press pause on any policy changes: “Our government knows there’s no pill [for PTSD], and they’re just trying to take away 70 percent of the one medicine that is the only medicine that works. It’s fucked up, and I’m not going to stop until I expose them all.”
Thus began his protest march. He was also walking for the dead: 158 days for the 158 Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan—including friends he didn’t have time to mourn while he was there. He made a Facebook post dedicating each day’s walk to a soldier, each post collecting prayers and RIPs and memories from friends and family in the comment thread underneath. With his father and his girlfriend Juliane travelling with him, first in a bus and later in an RV, Fabian would walk for a few days, then drive back to Oromocto to attend a veterans’ peer-support group or to take care of his kids. Then he’d drive all the way back to the last place he’d stopped on the road and do it again.
On tough days, he would think of Terry Fox. Before starting, he’d gone with Juliane, his son Cole, and his daughter, Myra, to Ottawa, to gaze on Fox’s statue for inspiration. Unlike the famous marathoner, of course, few people outside the veteran community knew about Fabian’s mission. Still, he kept moving with the resolve of a revolutionary, listening to audio books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, 101 Ways to Transform your Life, and Walking Point, written by a Vietnam veteran about that war and his own path to spirituality after trauma. Other veterans joined him for short sections. He put letters in the mailboxes of houses he passed. In March, he stopped driving back to Oromocto, and walked full time.
Tramping along the Trans-Canada, wedged between snowbanks and traffic, felt death-defying. It felt good. He was falling back into a mission, a routine that made sense: wake, walk, eat, walk, sleep, wake, walk.
n May 18, about 200 veterans and supporters joined him at the protest. But the reduction in coverage went ahead, and now Fabian says he’s done with revolutions. Two weeks after the protest, his truck, wrapped in a gigantic marijuana-leaf decal and plastered with MFT logos, was parked in the lot outside MFT’s Oromocto flagship. Inside, Fabian sat in the “vape lounge,” surrounded by veterans and MFT volunteers. Juliane, his father, and his two kids—who can recite factoids about marijuana’s therapeutic effects on demand—were there too. Almost everyone wore some piece of MFT-branded clothing, whether a sweater, a t-shirt, or a baseball cap. Fabian gestured around the room. “This,” he said, “is my family. They’re all I care about now.”
This is where Fabian’s new mission comes into focus, the culmination of what he’s been working toward: Veterans for Healing’s planned wilderness retreat at Egypt Falls, a wide, stepped waterfall at the bottom of a valley south of Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. MFT purchased a 110-acre parcel of land surrounding the falls last year, and here, Fabian is planning a 20-room chalet surrounded by wilderness, where veterans who’ve made it to the other side of PTSD will be able to disconnect from the world, reconnect with each other, and manage their continued mental health through hiking, horticulture, equine therapy, yoga, and meditation—and cannabis, of course.
After working to connect the access road, hooking up septic and electricity, and actual construction of the building, Fabian says he can bring this dream to life by 2019. He can now focus on the thing that’s kept him going since he came back from Afghanistan: helping other soldiers like him who feel lost, alone, abandoned. Fabian won’t be living at Egypt Falls full time, but it will be his safe space in the woods—a world of trees and green, the complete opposite of the desert he’s been running from for 10 years.
For now, he’s decided to go off-grid. He’s taking a break from social media, changing his phone number, and stepping out of the spotlight. There was just one last thing to do.
A few days after the meeting in the vape lounge, he and a few MFT supporters marched up to the Fredericton operational stress injury (OSI) clinic for veterans, to confront staff about a recent unexplained decision to stop prescribing cannabis from the location. But when the group got to the entrance, they found a note taped to the clinic’s door saying that it was closed for staff training.
“They knew we were coming,” Fabian told everyone—and they did, because Fabian had called ahead. He spoke into a recording smartphone and addressed the clinic: “You people disgust me. Veterans Affairs disgusts me. This OSI clinic disgusts me. You’re a contributor to the murders that are happening. You are murderers.”
n April 8 of this year, the tenth anniversary of the Easter bombing, Trevor posted a short message on Facebook: “10 years today for something that would mean nothing when it was all said and done. Rest in peace. Still rips the soul right out of me.”
A week later, he gave a TedX talk in Moncton about his struggle with PTSD. During his presentation, he showed a video that he hoped would help people understand something of what it feels like to have PTSD. It’s full of shaky war footage, audio from news stories about Lionel Desmond’s murder-suicide, and shots of Trevor, looking full of angst in bed, in front of a bathroom mirror, sitting in a chair dressed in desert camo. He narrates the video in a kind of poetic monotone. “How can you choose to move on, forget?”
Close to the end of the video, someone walks through woods alive with birdsong; a man rides a motorcycle with no hands, lens flare obscuring the landscape behind him. “What things can you fix when all you have is peace?” Trevor’s voice asks. “What places and lands do you explore freely? Please take me along. But right now, I’m only dreaming.”
Today, when Trevor closes his eyes, he finds the horror has faded, and some beauty from his deployments is returning. Especially from the 2001 tour, when his team was the first rotation in a UN peacekeeping mission to Eritrea, after its war ended with Ethiopia. So many wonderful things happened there: An invitation to a community celebration, where people performed local dances and shared their food, even though his whole unit ended up getting sick from it. The time he swallowed a “shit fly” and the medic made fun of him for freaking out and thinking he was going to die. Or the time he and his section scared a troop of baboons in the desert near Asmara.
The day was excruciatingly hot, and he and about 10 other soldiers were driving through the countryside near the city. They pulled off the road to rest and rehydrate near a group of derelict houses and a mud hut perched on a rocky ledge, hanging high over a plain. Looking out over the edge, jutting out over the expanse of dry land below, scattered with shrubs and baobab trees, Trevor thought of Mufasa on Pride Rock in The Lion King, surveying his wild kingdom.
As his section lingered, drinking water and joking around, a single baboon leapt from inside the hut, clambering to its roof. The lone baboon screamed from the perch and then, from behind trees and other squat buildings and piles of garbage, dozens of baboons emerged, galloped past the group of startled soldiers, scrambled down the steep hillside, and stampeded across the plain below. “I could tell you probably a thousand baboons, I don’t know if they fell out of the sky or what, but I didn’t know they were there. They just started all running across the plain, and it was beautiful. They were running away.”
Posted to Fabian Henry’s “March to Parliament in Support of
Veteran Lives” Facebook Group, Feb. 2, 2017:
“Today and tomorrow are extremely difficult days for me as I walk. It was 10 years ago this Easter week end coming that I made a huge mistake and Trooper Pentland & MCpl Stewart paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.
I can still hear the engine rev up and movement happening at night that wasn’t supposed to happen because one IED had already gone off. You can’t imagine the sound of the double stacked TC-6 land mine under water in a wadi in Kandahar and what that blast can do to an armoured vehicle.
I’m sorry for my mistake Patrick and today I will walk my ass towards Ottawa for you. I will not stop until we win this fire fight brother or else I’ll be seeing you on the other side sooner rather than later.
May your spiritual being be forever remembered while your human experience has ended.”
Peace, Love, & Light
Words – Chelsea Murray
Chelsea Murray is a journalist, editor, and co-founder of The Deep. She’s written for The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, and This Magazine, among others.