AUBURN — Sarah Stenuf is far away from Rocket City now.
Living in Auburn with her wife, Jennifer, and 3-year-old son, Gracen, the 28-year-old Army veteran is still haunted by her days at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan.
It was nicknamed "Rocket City," "The City of Lights" and "The Bowl" due to the heavy Taliban fire it received. The base was home for Stenuf in 2010, when she was an Apache attack helicopter crew chief. Accompanied by her family in an interview on Nov. 1, she explained that she was a mechanic, making sure her "bird" was ready for missions.
The Syracuse native had wanted to serve in the military since seventh grade, and so when she suffered multiple concussions during hand-to-hand combat training between 2009 and 2010, she kept her resulting seizures quiet. She deployed from Fort Drum in Watertown to FOB Salerno, and despite looking out at "Taliban Hill" every morning, she did her job and liked it. One of two women in her line crew, Stenuf was living her dream.
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Little did she know an incoming attack in Afghanistan would change her life path dramatically.
At the end of October, Stenuf officially became the owner of a limited liability company called Happy Healing 420. Based in Auburn for now, she is working to create a space where patients in the state's Medical Marijuana Program can commune and use their medications, and learn more about the health benefits of marijuana and other available resources.
Stenuf said she uses the plant herself to treat many of her health conditions, namely post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, insomnia and chronic pain. Cannabis works for Stenuf — but it was a long road to finding that out.
A month and a half away from completing her deployment, she had had a seizure down range (in a combat zone). She was transported to a hospital in Germany, unable to fly back to the states because the elevation would cause her to experience seizures.
"All I'm doing now is just figuring out how to stay in the military," she recalled. "I'm not even doing my job. My guys are still down range. They're still deployed. I'm the scumbag that's still got all my limbs, all my legs, all my eyes. I'm with a bunch of guys that are blown up and burned, and I'm here because I have seizures."
Doctors prescribed Stenuf 13 different medications. On bad days, that could mean 40 pills in 24 hours. Depressed and angry, Stenuf said she turned to alcohol and cocaine. She attempted suicide three times.
On May 31, 2013, Stenuf was discharged from the military. She checked into a Veterans Affairs center, but couldn't get into a drug treatment program. Calling around to different facilities, trying desperately to get help, a few new people entered her life and began to turn things around.
While shooting pool at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center, Stenuf met a World War II veteran. He was missing his legs, one arm and part of his face, and he'd have Stenuf hop on the back of his motorized scooter and take her into the woods to smoke cannabis, she said. Stenuf laughed as she remembered her friend.
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"That was actually my first introduction, medically wise, to cannabis," Stenuf said. "He actually helped me get off a lot of the pills I was on at the time."
The VA was also where Stenuf met Jennifer and Gracen. The mother and son would come in to visit Jennifer's uncle, and over time, Sarah and Jennifer fell in love. Gracen would fall asleep on Sarah's shoulder, and she said she was amazed at how content and happy he looked there, with her.
"What is this little thing?" she said, recalling the first time he fell asleep in her arms. "It's staying with me? This thing is cool."
During the interview on Nov. 1, Gracen looked up from his coloring book and grinned at Sarah.
"Yeah you!" she said to her son, and he laughed.
Jennifer said that at first, she was dead set against Sarah's cannabis use. But as Sarah started taking fewer pills, Jennifer said she stopped acting like a zombie.
"I think the transitions from medication to medical marijuana, it was a slow transition," Jennifer said. "I think it was something she wasn't completely aware of, the amount of change that took place when she was transitioning. I got to witness that."
Sarah, however, is deeply critical of the state's Medical Marijuana Program. She said there is no equal access to cannabis medication, and that what is available is expensive. She feels the program has been set up to fail.
Stenuf advocates for the decriminalization of cannabis and has traveled the country telling her story. She's learned what has worked and what has not in other states. She hopes to make a difference in her own state, working to start a nonprofit homestead for veterans transitioning from active duty. She wants to set up temporary housing and teach them how to grow cannabis, educate them about its health benefits and get them working, making money and contributing to society in a way beneficial to themselves and to others.
That dream is tricky, she realizes, as she works to stay within the state's legal boundaries.
"In the cannabis industry, you really walk a thin line, and you really have to make sure you're on your game and doing everything correctly," she said. "I mean, I got 420 in my name. I've got a big pot leaf as the American flag as my logo."
Stenuf laughed. Balancing the business and the advocacy, she hopes to break the stigma surrounding marijuana and eventually see the state decriminalize and legalize the organic plant that helped her get her life back. With her "bird" tattooed on her arm and her American flag pot leaf pin on her lapel, Stenuf is ready to fight her next battle — and win.
Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.