How a Combat Veteran Went From Fighting Wars to Growing Weed - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because it’s high time — see what we did there? — to realize cures for combat come in lots of different sizes.

By Eugene S. Robinson

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Ben Kroskey 
Salinas, California

I grew up in a pretty rural, conservative place in Pennsylvania. I worked on beef ranches all through high school. Farmed corn, hay, fed cattle. In sixth grade I went into the bathroom, and when I came out, 9/11 had happened. Everyone was devastated. As soon as I could, I followed my brother into the Marine Corps. I was infantry and assault — a rocket and demolitions expert. I spent four years in service, a lot of that time in Afghanistan, until I suffered a traumatic brain injury. But, and I don’t remember where I read this, I decided that it was better “to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war,” and that’s how I ended up here.

The Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance got me right after I came out to California and got a degree in agriculture, but, you know, I’d never planned on a career in cannabis cultivation. More than a million and a half veterans in California live below the poverty line and I was no different: I had disability — $900 a month — but I was strapped for cash, and this is a great full-time deal.

Only veterans work here, so we run a tight operation. And we’re politically lined up, with a quick reaction force.

I know it might sound corny, but what I do here — regulating carbon dioxide, watering the plants every other day, fixing sump pumps — is pretty zen. We have a lot of 16-by-40 rooms, and each room is its own contained environment. Garden therapy is just, well, very zen. It’s very meditative. You have to grow with the plant. You can manipulate it a little bit, but you have to grow with the plant. I use a five-second count for watering the plants at a certain pressure. I’ll time my breathing to it, and it’s that attention to detail that transferred over from the military.

Funny thing is, one of the first things I did in Afghanistan was to raid a grow house. They were growing it for medicinal purposes. It didn’t click with me then, but it did later. Today, and on every first and third Monday of the month, the six of us who work here full time go out and donate cannabis to veterans. We started in 2011 with 15 patients at a small table in the back of the dispensary. Now we have upward of 300 patients. So today was a busy day. 

And that was on top of what needs to be dealt with whenever we see it: mold, mildew (either on the plants or on the walls), broken air conditioning units, flooded rooms. Any of those things happen, and we have to take the plants to another room. We can’t shock them; we’re making medicine, so it has to be done carefully. We have six harvests a year.

Outside of that, from the time I get up at 5 a.m. to late at night? Time in the war room, team meetings, planning calendars. Only veterans work here, so we run a tight operation. And we’re politically lined up, with a quick reaction force. We’re participating in the political process with the board of supervisors in Watsonville. Being the first permitted cannabis cultivation operation is important to us. Legalization has made it and will make it easier for us to do business.

Hey, did you interview another grower down the road before you came here? If you did, I’ll have to ask you to leave. We’re obsessive about spider mites. They get in your clothes and lay eggs. That kind of thing would mean I’d have to tear a room down completely. And there’s absolutely no time for that today.

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