I used to think the most interesting thing about me was my time in the service which started with parachuting into Afghanistan (Objective Rhino) right after 9-11 and dropping in behind enemy lines 2 months before the invasion of Iraq began, but it’s probably that for the last decade plus I’ve been incarcerated for a crime of which I’m 100% innocent–and it was actually my combat service training by the US government and the “implied threat” (court legal term) that service constitutes to the public that was used by the prosecution as strategy to get me convicted. My appeal is currently pending in Federal court and I have every confidence that my honor will be restored to me. If you’re interested in my story and how I ended up here, you can find it in full at www.JusticeForJohnBuckley.com. And please let others know about my story.
The idea for this update came from a conversation with my Aunt, we were discussing the “nexus”, as I see it between the astronomically high addiction/substance abuse issues amongst combat veterans (specifically from my era of combat theatres—Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq) and cheap “pain management” practices of government medical providers for active, retired, and honorably discharged service members (including Tricare, DEERS, Medicare, and VA healthcare). These substance abuse issues are probably the largest contributing factor for the 22 suicides a day by OEF & OIF Veterans. They are also (along with PTSD and TBI—Traumatic Brain Injury) they largest contributing factor for 35% of the 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated in America being Veterans—10.1 million if you count those currently booked into county jails. Drug Addiction is a consistent line going thru most of these convictions.
I am a former Army Ranger from Colorado Springs, CO, the Veteran mecca. As a 3rd generation service member, I have been around the military all of my life. I was born on Marquette Air Force Base. I was wounded and decorated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I deployed multiple times as an operator in both places. In 2005, I was shot in the shoulder and the ensuing surgeries and rehab led to a break in deployments that lasted for 2 years. However, combined with a IED blast I’d survived a few years prior which lead to some back surgeries and a T.B.I diagnosis, I was labeled a “Poly Trauma” patient. Going from an elite member of the 3rd Ranger Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment to a “Poly Trauma” patient was a difficult metal transition to say the least. This experience both with active duty medical treatment and VA healthcare is what I want to explore in this update from my prison cell. My perspective is from a sober, wounded, combat veteran with extensive experience transitioning from combat veteran to civilian life who has been around other veterans of my era in prison, 9 out of 10 are addicts who were started down that path by the Government.
My initial injuries were easy to hide. I would eat “Ranger Candy” (Ibuprofrin 800s) like they were mints for my back pain. The changes to my brain and personality from the T.B.I. were so subtle that I was in denial about them…I loved being a Ranger; I was invested in my job so I gutted it out. The gunshot wound was a little more traumatic; It left a dime-sized hole (after the surgeries to remove the bullet and repair the shoulder) about a half-inch deep. I used to have to pack it with iodine-soaked gauze 3 times a day. It was horrible. What’s worse is that the actual bone in my shoulder got infected and the hole wouldn’t close, so for a year I had this wound that resembled a butt-hole in the middle of my shoulder leaking this gross ooze.
At first the pain was awful! When you’re in that much pain, you NEED pain medication so that you can heal properly and I totally believe that. But even with the strongest pain killers, I could get no relief and I was prescribed it all—Morphine, Xanax, Oxycontin, Percocet, even Fentanyl patches. I remember one day going to see the physical therapist, a Major who told me “Sgt Buckley, I put a consult in for you to see Plastic Surgery.” Me: “Plastic Surgery Sir? What do you think you can make me more beautiful? You can’t improve on perfection sir!” Major: “ No, I’m going to send you down there to see if we can get a skin graft off your ass to put on that open wound so that we can get you in the pool to do pool therapy” Me (looking bewildered): Sir I’m not a doc but I’m pretty sure this is infected! You can’t just cover it up with skin off my ass; we need to deal with this! How about a consult to the infectious disease doc?!” (whom I’d have yet to see still 6 months after being shot) The Major: “Hmmm…” That’s the day I decided to leave active duty. The end of my 2nd enlistment (my E.T.S.) was about 45 days away. I’d been struggling on whether to re-enlist or not and that doctor had just made my choice for me. Right around the same time, I woke up one morning—6 months after being shot—“Fiending” for my pills. Not because I was in pain but because I was physically addicted to the narcotics! I recognized it immediately. It had crept up on me and that morning I saw the beast. I quit cold turkey that day. Since then I’ve had 7 surgeries on my shoulder and back and I followed a hard rule where I only allowed myself 72 hours of post-operative prescription pain meds and then it was back to ibuprofrin.
For the next 3 years I was still sent—IN THE MAIL—1000s of hardcore prescription narcotic opioids. Seems nuts, right? About 2 months after my plastic surgery conversation with the Major, I got out of the Army and transitioned to the VA healthcare system. I actually moved to Kentucky specifically because they didn’t have the overwhelming veteran population they had back in Colorado. I had 4 surgeries on my shoulder there, eventually having the entire ball, socket, rotator cuff and bone nearly down the elbow replace with prosthetic. I had 2 surgeries on my back. And throughout this time, every two weeks in my mailbox I would get a big grey bag of pills from the VA (my family will attest to this) I would get a giant bottle of 1200 Oxycontin 80s (I wasn’t aware at the time but the street value of each bottle was over $16,000..), a bottle of Xanex and a bottle of Percocet 30s.
Because “pill therapy” wasn’t an option for me, I pushed the VA for an alternative pain management options and I was constantly trying to get primary care to stop the flow of opioid narcotics to my house. I thought of myself as a Ranger tough guy but if I’m being honest, I was in quite a bit of pain on a daily basis (and still am to some degree). But I wanted something, ANYTHING other than drugs. I was one of the highest tiered Veterans in the VA healthcare system: Mid 20s, 100% service-connected disabled, combat wounded OEF and OIF Veteran, Purple Heart recipient and Poly-trauman. I felt like if I couldn’t get it done then it couldn’t be done by the VA. I was given Physical therapy once a week and it was sub-par if you could even call it that. I asked for Sports Physical therapy 3-4 times per week (keep in mind I’m still fantasizing about getting my shoulder back). I asked for massage therapy and acupuncture. Again, anything that would actually work except for drugs. I was told that alternative therapies were not in the VA formulary, that they just “didn’t do that weird stuff”. I made such a stink that they put me on a panel of Veterans that attended a meeting with the Regional Director of the VA in St. Louis. I told her what I was seeing in my friends, what I was seeing in other Veterans around me, that the suicides and spike in addiction could be stemmed by writing in alternative methods of pain management to the formulary. She nodded her head, told me I was right, thanked me for my service and sent me off with a diplomatic smile. I continued to remain in pain and the drugs continued to show up at my house… I would flush them all down the toilet but I kept the pill bottles in a giant trash bag. A friend saw them one day and said they were worth about half a million dollars.
I did quite a bit of Veteran-oriented nonprofit work before coming to prison, it became a passion of mine. In between deployments back to Iraq as a private contractor and having my beloved children, it was the only thing that gave my life purpose. It brought me into contact with Veterans from every branch and in every stage of transition. I saw more and more tragedy because of drug addiction, not just in my Ranger community but service-wide. But when I came to prison I truly saw the tragedy in its totality in the Veteran population, all following a similar pattern: They got hurt. Were prescribed hardcore opioid narcotics on active duty or by the VA (because it was the cheapest and only form of treatment they did back then). They got addicted. Milked it as long as they could, and then got cut off. They then switched to heroin and began committing crimes to support their habits. Interweave PTSD and self-medicating, undiagnosed mental disorders as a result of combat trauma and Wham! You’ve got on incarcerated combat Veteran.
Shortly after coming to prison, I wrote the VA informing them that I had come to prison and I would like to set my 3 daughters up for allotments from my pension (to which they are entitled). Not only did they refuse to set up the allotments, they sent me a bill for $187,900.00 saying they had it in their system that I’d been incarcerated since 2006 (I wasn’t even off active duty yet, the last time I was treated at the VA was 2010-2011) and all my benefits had been withdrawn fraudulently. The letters I got from the VA were so hateful, stating things like “You’ve dishonored your country by coming to prison” and that I’d “broken my oath to my country.” I had to hire a lawyer and it took my years, but I finally got my girls their benefits. Through the process I found out that I was not entitled to take advantage of my own health insurance despite being an “Awardee” for life. “Prison healthcare is sufficient” they declared in a letter, despite my special needs as a result of my combat service. I assure you, the for-profit prison healthcare system WellPath is anything but sufficient. They have paid out tens of millions in wrongful death suits and the founder and CEO was just indicted on securities fraud 2 months ago. I’d get better treatment on a cattle ranch.
I am not a drug addict or an alcoholic and I’ve never had an issue with substance abuse beyond what I’ve written here. When, I wonder, is the Government going to take responsibility for the mess they’ve made? I know first-hand that there were nearly no alternatives to drug therapy given to Veterans and even now the VA does no outreach to its Veterans in prison. We earned our healthcare with our blood and cannot use it. Often times the reason Veterans are such a large population in our prisons and jails is because of the folly of the VA formulary. In my correspondence with the VA over my daughters benefits, they made it clear they do not “see” us in “here” unless it’s as “oath breakers” and “without honor”. In other words, not worth a second thought.
For many of your patriots out there sporting memorabilia that say’s “Freedom Isn’t Free!”—do you really know the cost? I mean REALLY know the cost?
Ranger Buckley out!
RLTW! (Ranger Lead the Way)