Trading a Loving Heart for a Purple Heart: The Travis Gilliland Story

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Trigger Warning: This article discusses military service, PTSD, suicide, and self-destructive substance abuse and contains disturbing passages that could be triggering, especially for those who have served or are serving in the military.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you start talking with someone of a more liberal persuasion about cannabis legalization and/or medical cannabis. You mention PTSD and our military veterans whose lives would be greatly improved with legal, safe access and suddenly your audience is hostile.

They may say things like “I’m all for legalization, but I have no sympathy for anyone who joined the military after 9/11,” or “Maybe they shouldn’t have been killing brown people for corporate profits,” or even “Most people in the military are there because they have nothing else to offer society.”

Travis Gilliland

Travis Gilliland

Many Americans have been so saturated with media depictions of modern American soldiers as violent and racist (calling Afghani and Iraqi civilians “hajjis” for example), as substance abusing, and as sexist that the stereotype holding the place of all soldiers in their mind is often unquestionably negative.

So what do you do when that happens, when someone’s personal bias leaves them stereotyping a massive, at-risk population? Tell them about Travis.

Travis grew up in the midwest (Kansas, to be exact) and had what could be politely called a somewhat troubled adolescence. His father was an alcoholic and his mother abandoned the family when Travis was still young. He lived with his aunt and uncle, a loving, stable couple who tried to help teens in trouble.

When he was sixteen, Travis and a friend got into a car after drinking, and only Travis walked away from the accident that resulted. Following his friend’s death, Travis “grew up” significantly and began focusing on the other important relationships in his life.

Travis and Jessica had met in school when they were fifteen, and like so many couples, they loathed each other at first. Eventually, their mutual love of music and their ability to relate well to one another brought them closer and closer together. In time Jessica ended up moving in with Travis’ aunt and uncle, increasing the number of minors at the house to roughly thirteen. The young lovers dreamed of eventually moving to Washington state, buying some land, and fulfilling Travis’ aspiration of growing coffee and living simply.


Young love: Travis and Jessica

Travis was the kind of boy who would go to great lengths for the people he loved. To celebrate his one-month anniversary with Jessica, he enlisted the help of some of the other teens and kids staying with his aunt and uncle. With the help of a boy dressed like a butler and the culinary expertise of one of the girls, Travis was able to take the girl he loved to a fancy dinner he could never have afforded in a restaurant.

Despite his huge heart and amazing creativity, Travis’ “troubled” years had cost him big-time, and as graduation loomed, he grew increasingly worried about how he would live after school. Travis and Jessica were intensely in love, and he couldn’t imagine a future without her. While they were still in school, he enlisted in the army and proposed to Jessica. Being a traditionalist, he had asked her father for permission first, but Jessica’s dad refused. Jessica, however, was elated. The two of them got married shortly after their gradation ceremony, on the very same day.

Neither of them had ever supported the wars abroad or the military, but Travis honestly thought that joining the Army would allow him to start a real future and to take care of the woman he loved. The couple enjoyed a beautiful few weeks of their honeymoon, in denial about the inevitable separation that his new career would force on them.

When Travis left for basic training, it broke both of their hearts. Neither had realized that they wouldn’t be allowed to speak on the phone or communicate directly for weeks, and both of them thought they’d have a year to spend together between basic training and when he shipped out. Back home, Jessica had no idea what was going on, only that she was alone and she had no way to reach her only source of love and support. Days turned into weeks without a word from Travis. Travis survived by doing exactly what boot camp is intended to force people to do: he distanced himself from his civilian relationships and learned to push down his individuality and his feelings.

Travis_Jessica2Despite loving Travis desperately, or perhaps because of how completely she loved him, Jessica struggled with his absence and his emotional distance. In time, her struggle manifested itself in traditionally self-destructive behavior: alcohol abuse and partying, which in turn lead to indiscretion on her part. It didn’t take long for Jessica to realize that the child she was pregnant with was not her beloved Travis’ progeny. When she broke the news to him, he wasn’t able to handle it, and they separated.

Their love was stronger than any indiscretion, however, and in time they began working to reconcile despite the issues and the distance. They talked on the phone and Skyped. Jessica watched in horror as the war slowly but completely consumed the man she had once loved. For the most part, he wouldn’t even speak with her about what he had seen or done.

He did tell her that for a while he worked as a sniper. It had been difficult, but the removed nature of the job had allowed him to divorce himself from the reality of what he was doing. Not all of his interactions were so numbed by separation; Travis also told her that once he had killed an armed boy who he believed was twelve or thirteen. Unlike many of his “interactions,” this was a face-to-face confrontation that ended when Travis shot the child fatally in the head.

When he came back from his tour abroad, Travis decided he was going to go back again. He had hated it more than he was able to say, but he hoped he could in some way protect others from what he had experienced. While back in the states between tours, Travis struggled with the pro-war attitude of the people he interacted with in public. He hated it when people who saw him in uniform told him “God bless you,” because he felt truly that what he had done, and that what was being done, was wrong. Despite that pain, that conflict, he didn’t hesitate to volunteer to go back on active duty because he wanted to help in any way he could.

photo.phpStill, his memories haunted him. He told Jessica of a time when he and his friends were stuck without supplies in hostile territory in Afghanistan. An Afghani guy who had made it very clear he opposed the American occupation of his country hid the soldiers in his opium field and killed one of his goats to feed them. Travis couldn’t reconcile that love and compassion with the actions he’d been forced to take while in the service.

Back in the States and awaiting his discharge on base, Travis laid plans with Jessica for a future together. They were going to start dating once he was a free man again, and they would make themselves a fresh beginning. He was warm and loving toward Jessica’s daughter and had even managed to finally earn the respect of her father. Imagine Jessica’s surprise when, two days before her birthday (which was to be the day he would have received his discharge), she opened her door to find two police officers with terrible news: Travis was dead.

He had been found in his room on base with seventy cans of air duster. The officer told Jessica that his face had been frozen, and the overdose had been fatal. With one knock on her door, the world Jessica knew, all her dreams for the future, were gone along with her first love. All she had was that cold comfort that the military offers some of those who lose a loved one: a Purple Heart (for a shoulder injury involving shrapnel) and a Gold Star. The medals ended up with a friend of Travis’ from the military because for Jessica they were a reminder of the terrible weight Travis had carried back with him from Afghanistan.

Travis had struggled with alcohol in high school and had experimented with other drugs as well, including inhalants. Jessica knew he had a history of abusing substances such as air duster. She also knew that he knew there was a safer (risk-reduction) way to abuse the compound in question. She didn’t mince words when explaining that he had engaged in what he knew to be an incredibly dangerous method for using inhalants. Although the military ruled Travis’ death accidental, Jessica knows in her heart that it was a suicide, because he intentionally chose an incredibly high-risk delivery method for the inhalants, one she had never known him to use before.

TravisDespite all he had gone through, the Army didn’t recognize that Travis suffered from PTSD. Even if they did, the military and the Federal government still don’t acknowledge how useful cannabis is for mitigating the worst effects of PTSD, including suicidal ideations and dangerous substance abuse. Like most people in the military, Travis was subject to the constant threat of drug testing. Instead of turning to safe, natural cannabis to help him sleep and find relief from his pain, he had to find something that wouldn’t show up on a urine test. In order to avoid detection and disciplinary action, Travis went with something incredibly dangerous. That decision cost him his life.

In the years since Travis’ death, Jessica has made peace with losing her love and has remarried and begun a new family. Her new husband respects the memory of Travis and his importance to Jessica and her daughter. As part of her grieving process, Jessica educated herself about PTSD and eventually about cannabis and how useful it can be for those suffering as Travis was. She believes that if cannabis had been an option for him, he would not have died, and this belief has turned her into a passionate activist. She also advocates for better mental health support for veterans.

People should know Travis’ story because it differs from the narrative many people believe about the average American solider. Travis was not driven by ego or a desire to kill. He was not racist, he was not pro-war, and he certainly had plenty of skills to offer other than serving as a solider. He was a disadvantaged teenager who had been trying his hardest to grow into a good man. He loved his family, his friends, and his wife deeply, and he wanted to do something to make the world a better place.

The next time someone dismisses veterans out of hand, tell them about Travis. Remind them that some people join the military because it represents their only chance of going to college. Remind them that some people have a family to feed and no useful career training from high school. Tell them that sometimes, a young man totally in love with a beautiful girl and with no other prospects may sign up in the naive belief he is helping build his family a future.

Even if people oppose the military actions taken by our country, the people at the front have no control over the policies they are used to enforce. Their job demands that they abdicate their right to moral decision-making (in theory for the greater good). They are put in a hostile environment, and they witness and perhaps commit atrocities in the name of country and in self-preservation. Then they come back home, still without marketable job skills, and now addled with PTSD and other serious psychological effects from the horrors of guerrilla, street-level warfare.

It is our job as activists and as citizens to re-humanize those who give their lives, their mental health, and their innocence in the defense of our nation (or in what they at least perceive to be the defense of our nation). The next time someone tries to shut you down when you speak about the military, tell them about Travis. Tell them about his tragic childhood, his whole-hearted and inspiring devotion to his young wife, and his never-ending willingness to give of himself to others, even after being wounded. Tell them about how if he had had access to something safer to help him sleep, he might still be with us today.