When photographer Balazs Gardi mentioned to army veteran Jose Martinez, 28, how California’s Apple Valley, located on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert, reminded him of Kandahar, Afghanistan, the two instantly clicked. Gardi had spent time shooting servicemen and women there over the years and the two could envision what Kandahar looked like.
“What helped me work with Jose is the understanding of the experience that he went through,” the photographer says.
In 2012, while serving as an infantryman in Afghanistan, Martinez lost his legs, right arm and left index finger after he stepped on a land mine. Upon returning, he took prescription drugs to help him cope with post traumatic stress disorder. The pills took a toll on him as the veteran consumed up to 150 pills per day. “I really had to double check whether he really meant how many pills he took in one day because I did not believe a human could handle that much,” Gardi says. “We’re talking about pills that would easily kill most of us in that dosage and he just basically built up tolerance.”
Martinez realized if he wanted to survive, he needed to taper down on his medications and soon turned to medical cannabis to ease his various ailments. In an interview with TIME reporter Mark Thompson, Martinez says: “My brain’s telling me to freak out because I’m missing my limbs, but when I’m on cannabis, it tells me to calm down, you’re O.K., you’re fine.”
Gardi’s photographs, published in this week’s issue of TIME, show a day in the life of a former soldier who credits the drug for keeping his PTSD at bay. During the photo shoot, Gardi became amazed at how Martinez has been able to lead a normal life as a result of his new medication. “I think what’s remarkable about him is that I didn’t have the impression I was following a sick person or an injured person or a suffering person,” he says. “I spent a day with a totally normal person who happened to use medical marijuana and a lot of it because he has to deal with physical pain, phantom pain and all sorts of other demons he has.”
Another thing Gardi noted while shooting Martinez was how it’s also helped him improve his relationships with others. “Medical marijuana allows him to do that and allows him to basically do what normal people do every day without assistance and have functioning, perfect relationships,” he says. “He’s a happily married guy, has an amazing wife and his interactions with others are amazing compared to what he described to me when he was on prescription drugs.”
“I have a hard time understanding why medical marijuana is still not prescribed to veterans where I basically spent the day with living proof of how successful that could be,” he adds.
Balazs Gardi is a freelance photographer based in Oakland, Calif.
Tara Johnson, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.
Bianca Silva is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.