Fighting for Compassionate Care in New Mexico
By Mary Lou Smart
Al R. Schuessler injured his knee in 1972 when he fell out of a Huey helicopter during the Vietnam
As a result of that injury, he endured many, many operations over the years.
Hobbling around on crutches, he ruined his rotator cuffs and screwed up his back. One year ago, his injured leg was amputated above
the knee, and these days he gets around in a wheel chair. He was told in October that he would never walk again.
A star quarterback in high school, Schuessler’s drill instructor
(DI) saw his athletic build and positive demeanor and
encouraged him to pursue specialized training for a tough
job. When he looks back on the pain and suffering he has
endured during the decades since returning home, he
breaks down easily. Just as easily, he affirms that he is
proud of his service. “We were just doing a job,” he said.
“I would not have done it any other way. My DI is the one
who thought I’d be perfect for it, and I guess I was.”
A Special Operations Army officer while on active duty, he
saw things that he has trouble putting out of his mind. One
incident occurred in Cambodia when an explosion tore
apart the barracks where he was sleeping. A Vietnamese
national who had been working on the base pulled out a
grenade, pulled its pin, and blew himself up killing 15 military
personnel and seriously injuring another 13. The horrific
incident never made the evening news. Most of what
Schuessler was involved in was never reported to American
media channels because of the top-secret nature of his
Technically, Schuessler was in Cambodia, but a good deal
of the time he was in neighboring countries considered hostile
to U.S. interests. He was a door gunner, a sniper. His
team included cross-trained military personnel from the
Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
“We called it the four service Special Ops team,” he said.
“I could go anywhere with my five guys, and we would be
in there for days and days and days on end before we could
hit our target.”
Toward the end of his duty, in 1975 he volunteered to go into
Saigon with Air America, the CIA-owned airline involved in
everything from top-secret missions to transporting diplomats
and humanitarian efforts. When the North Vietnamese
Army overran South Vietnam, helicopters evacuated thousands
of U.S. and South Vietnamese people.
The fall of South Vietnam was a highly-charged time, and
one of Schuessler’s memories is of terrified children being
turned away from the doors of the packed planes. His memories
are painful, and they return frequently. He might be
driving past something that he has seen every day for years
and all of a sudden any random event — a smell, a sound,
the way the light is cast against the Southwest’s landscape —
triggers a memory, and he is back in the war in an instant.
He has trouble sleeping. From 1975 until 1995, he slept with
a handgun under his pillow. He still sleeps with a stick in
In his younger years, Schuessler smoked marijuana occasionally.
He stopped in 1984, as he was married with children,
and trying to start a career as an insurance adjuster.
“I walked away from it 30 years ago because of my career,
and also to keep my kids away from doing drugs and going
down the wrong track,” he said.
He did not walk away from alcohol. In pain and filled with
anxiety, he often drank. While he was treated at U.S.
Veteran’s Affairs (V.A.) facilities for his injury, pain and
stomach problems over the years, it was his private physician
who diagnosed his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He returned from Vietnam with PTSD, but did not understand
what was wrong for decades.
“I thought that I was having problems with alcohol, and I
went into rehab,” he said. “My doctor figured out that I had
PTSD and was self-medicating to deal with it.”
Since the diagnosis, he no longer drinks. He has had counseling
targeted to PTSD, and he works to control his anxiety.
“When I start having a moment, I need to begin looking
around to realize that I am safe, I am not back to where I think
I am. I have been in a living hell for almost 40 years with this.”
I noticed right away that it seemed to help both his stomach
and his pain. He went to his family doctor; a physician
who had been treating him for 12 years.
“I told him that I had tried it and that it did seem to help,”
he said. “I wanted his opinion.”
His doctor wrote his first recommendation. He has only
written one or two since, according to Schuessler, but he
immediately agreed that if his patient could improve with
a natural therapy, it was worth a try.
In considerable pain from his injury, he has taken strong
prescription medications for years. He has also felt sick
to his stomach for years, and takes Prilosac for that.
Two years ago, a friend who is a veteran as well as a business
associate suggested that he try cannabis. Although he
was conflicted about smoking marijuana again, he had
watched his friend’s outlook on life improve considerably
since entering New Mexico’s medical cannabis program.
While the two were out fishing one afternoon, his friend
gave him a joint. He smoked it the next afternoon, and