Andy Knowles was a Chief Gunners Mate until he was recently kicked out of the United States Navy after a 15 year career, just for using kratom. Andy wasn’t aware kratom was banned by the military, and it was helping him function with depression and anxiety.
Kratom is, in fact, on the Department of Defense’s list of banned substances for military personnel, along with coffee bean extract and other dietary supplements. But Andy only got into trouble because he was ratted out by a jealous ex-husband seeking revenge.
Andy’s wife Stephanie contacted Kratom Science back in October 2019 seeking help at the beginning of their legal troubles. I tried to put her in contact with some folks I thought could help, but unfortunately Andy would inevitably receive a discharge for “drug abuse”.
All I could do is help Andy tell his kratom story…
Kratom Science: Where are you from, originally?
Andy Knowles: Originally I’m from Texas.
Which part of Texas?
All over, really. Dallas/Fort Worth area, Austin area, and a few different places in between.
Did you join the Navy right out of high school?
A little bit after. I hung around for a while and then joined the Navy.
I was still young. I’m only 34 now and I did 15 years in.
Worked the normal high school kid job. Where I was living, I was always back and forth between my mom and dad after they divorced, when I was like eight. I wound up at the end of high school with my dad.
I just needed a change of pace, I guess you could say. Getting away from not-so-savory influences, and just an overall change of pace. And the recruiter was very convincing. He was doing his job.
And then I joined. I had no clue what I was doing. I picked the same job that my recruiter had. Because I was like, I don’t care what I’m doing. I’ll pick whatever you do.
And how old were you at the time? You were 19?
So where did you do basic training?
I went to boot camp in Chicago.
Was it Great Lakes?
Yep, Great Lakes. I got there on Valentines Day, 2005. So, did all that in the wintertime up in the Chicago area. So, you know, cold…
Coming from Texas that’s probably a brutal hit to the brain…
Oh yeah. It was a shock. I was still there for several months after boot camp. After that, I left to go do some more in-depth, job-specific schools in San Diego. I ended up staying in San Diego for 13 years.
That’s not bad!
No, it’s not!
What kind of job did you do in the Navy?
I was a gunner’s mate. Anything guns. The school I was talking to you about was for cannons. If you’re familiar with Navy ships, some of them have the huge cannon on the front of the ship. My primary job for the first, like, 6 years was doing that. My first ship, in a nutshell, was working on these cannons. Also, small arms and machine guns and what have you.
I spent some time doing that, stayed in San Diego, and that I ended up teaching at that same school for the cannons. I was teaching that for four years. Shore duty is what it’s called. You do sea and shore. They rotate you. My shore duty was teaching those cannons.
Did you serve overseas?
I did several deployments overseas. Middle East, China, Africa. I got to see the world. Got to do some cool stuff, things that most 20 year olds don’t do. It was good. You know, bad at times, good at times.
What was it like being in the middle of the ocean? Was it… fun? It’s a stupid civilian question, but I’m curious.
No it’s not stupid. You think about it, you go on a cruise ship, and there’s recreation. Being out in the middle of the ocean for the military, you know, you’re working. But in your down time you kinda have to get creative, on your recreation, or you’d go insane. There’s so many sea stories that I’m glad I got to experience. Some of the things you do out to sea is hilarious. Or, read a book start-to-finish in one sitting, something like that.
I kinda liked it, you know? I’ve got kids, so eventually I got kinda tired of it, because, you know, you wanna hang out with your kids, or see friends, or whatever. I mean it was good, it was relaxing at times. For me, it was like the best sleep I’ve ever got. Kinda like getting rocked to sleep every night. I loved it. The culture you’re immersed in. It’s one thing to watch it, say, on the Travel Channel. But to basically be dropped off for a day or two, be like, Ok go experience that, and then you don’t speak the language. It’s cool. It’s humbling, because you’re the outsider. I thought it was a cool experience. I’ve got my favorite places and I’ve got my least favorite places. But it was all cool getting to see all that.
It seemed like you liked it, in that you made a career out of it. You spent 15 years in the Navy. Your rank was Chief, is that the right terminology?
Yeah, that’s right. I can’t speak for everybody but I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people have ups and downs, where you love being in, and there’s times where you can’t stand it. I’ve been out of the outside workforce for so long, but I can only imagine it’s the same for everybody.. Days where you hate your job and days where you love it.
There was a time before each reenlistment that I did, where I was like “No, I’m not going to reenlist. I’m done. I’ll get out.” But I kept truckin’.
“I still have issues with depression and anxiety. But I’m far more functional than I was before, that’s for sure.”
When did you first discover kratom, and why did you consider kratom at all?
I’d gone to the Navy’s medical and mental health for depression and anxiety, because I was just having a hard time in life. Who isn’t? But I wanted to do something about it.
I had some bad experiences with the military’s healthcare. I’m not speaking for anybody but myself. My first view into mental health treatment was, I went in, filled out the paperwork — it was a bunch of like, “On a scale of one to ten, how bad are you feeling?” and all this stuff. I finally got to sit with a doctor at mental health and, the way it went was, I sat in his room and he was on his computer the whole time, and never once looked at me. He was like, “What’s the matter?” and I was like, “I don’t know. I’m not enjoying, like, being alive. I don’t wanna die. But I’m not enjoying life at all.”
His train of thought was everywhere. It was almost as if he was reading a script that didn’t make sense. I left feeling like, “What the hell was that?” I just wasted two hours out of my day, and nothing ever came of it. I answered some questions to a guy who probably couldn’t tell you what hair color I had. And that was it. The end.
Obviously nothing improved after that session. So I went back again a second time. There was a different doctor. Didn’t ask me anything. It was, “I’ve looked at your paperwork. Here’s a prescription for Paxil. Go fill it. Take it how the bottle says.”
So, that was it.
“Here’s your drugs, goodbye.” That’s how the healthcare system has been.
I didn’t want Paxil. I just wanted to talk to somebody. I can’t say the offer wasn’t afforded to me to talk to someone, because it was… So I went and did that. That was more helpful than any of the doctors I was seeing. I’m just spilling my guts about everything to a stranger. It was good, I liked it. But, I mean, nothing was changing.
I started researching civilian healthcare providers that accepted my insurance. I met up with a doctor in San Diego who, sort of the same thing, he prescribed me gabapentin. It was still in the trial phase for anxiety and depression. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. It was definitely a ride, as far as that medicine goes. Fifteen minutes after the first time I took it, I was like, I can’t be doing this. This one’s not going to be beneficial. Cut to – I’m not taking it anymore, and that’s kinda it.
I’ve got close family members who had depression problems. And they kinda got the same thing from their doctors — “Here’s these pills, take these pills” — and one of them was taking kratom, and never felt better.
When was this, when you started to hear about kratom?
A year and half, two years ago. I hadn’t heard much about it. Except, you know, first-hand, “I’m taking this now and it’s like a life-changer.”
We hear that from so many people.
Right. So cut-to, I’m taking kratom. Did a little research like everybody else does, Google it. There were a couple of documentaries about it. You’ve probably seen Hamilton Morris, and his Pharmacopeia. He’s got an episode on kratom.
But then it was easy, you just Google where you buy kratom. And it’s everywhere. Okay, I’m like, this is legal, let’s try it. Bought it, took it. Within a couple days, I was like, this isn’t bad. It’s doing something here. So I stuck with it.
And why not? To me it’s so easy on the body. It’s not like alcohol, or hard drugs, or even prescription drugs. You can function with it. I never had a “hangover” with it. Is that your experience too?
Yeah. I still have issues with the depression and anxiety. But I’m a functional depressed person. I’m far more functional than I was before, that’s for sure. Right now, as you can probably imagine, life sucks with everything that’s just happened. But my wife and I, we’re finding time to laugh. We laugh and have fun together. We’re making the best out of a crap situation. Part of that is just us being resilient, and part of it is that this stuff does help. It’s the lack of information that’s out there…
Which leads to the part that’s so frustrating. Just by doing these interviews about kratom, I’ve accidentally spoken to two people now who have been mistreated by the military.
My own personal take on it is people outside the military have been like, “I can’t believe that. It’s garbage.” While people inside, on my way out, were like “What are you stupid? How can you not know this? It’s banned. You should have known better because of your rank.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should have known, but I didn’t. There’s no information about it. The legal hurdles I had to go through towards the end were these people trying to prove that I had training and knew better. And they could not find anything, because there wasn’t anything. There’s no training on it.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever read the list of banned substances for DoD. Green coffee bean extract?
That’s one of them?
That’s a “free, take one” at GNC.
So what happened? What led you to even be tested for kratom? I can’t believe they even have test kits.
Well, they don’t have a test kit. They have to send it off to a third party. What led me to it, to sum it up, is revengeful exes. There was an ex-husband, there’s a lot of hard feelings there. When I initially got pulled into a legal office, I was still taking kratom. I was getting questioned about everything under the sun about my life, except for kratom. They never mentioned it. But that’s what they were leading towards. But they never said it though. It was like an interrogation. But it was never about kratom.
I left there going, like, “What in the hell was that?” and went about living my life. I kept taking kratom because we hadn’t talked about it. I didn’t know at the time it was banned. Everybody knows you don’t go to work in the military and shoot heroin in the morning. You don’t go smoke crack before you go to work. I’m sure people that may be in the military would be like, “I knew that.” But I kinda have to call bullshit on that, because nobody knew about [kratom], or what it was at all.
They said, “You have to go see Substance Abuse Rehabilitation.” I’ve already proven I’m not doing drugs. They’re like, “We tested you for kratom.”
So, I get accused of doing drugs, basically. I was like “Ok, let’s take the drug test.” So I go take a urinalysis. That took several weeks to come back. In the meantime, I had gone to court for child custody, where my ex was bringing up in court “He’s on drugs. He’s doing heroin. He’s doing opiates.” All this stuff. I was like, I beg you’re pardon, no I’m not. My lawyer was like, “Go get a hair test today.”
So I immediately left court, went and paid the $160 for a hair test, did the hair test, I’m not on drugs.
So it’s a whole bunch of that, and then I get pulled into an office at work, and they’re like, “Your drug test results are back. You have to go see Substance Abuse Rehabilitation.” I’m like, “For what?” I’ve already proven, even with a hair test, I’m not doing drugs. And they’re like, “We tested you for kratom”. I was like, well why would you do that, you know?
Every command has a drug and alcohol abuse rep, and that’s who was telling me this. I said, “Why are they testing me for that?” He was like, “I have no clue”. So that’s Guy #1 who didn’t know.
So I go to this Substance Abuse Rehabilitation place. It’s kind of like an outpatient interview, basically, to determine if I’m dependent on anything. I had to talk to two doctors. I was legally obligated to do it. The people at the substance abuse rehabilitation program had no clue what kratom was. The second doctor that I saw said, “It sounds like this stuff is actually working for you. It’s helping you.” I was like, “Yeah, it is. It’s helping a lot.” He said, “Well, unfortunately it’s banned.”
So I’m thinking, well it’s banned. I’ll just quit taking it. But I come to find out that’s not how it’s going to go. They’re going to have to start processing legal action. I’m like, well if I’m screwed, I’m not gonna stop taking it. If I’m getting kicked out, this is what I’m doing.
I went through the whole legal thing. I did the cliche, like you see in the movies, where the guy is in trouble and he’s getting yelled at. I’m being called a drug addict. I’m being called a bad father. I’m being called, you name it. I’m like, “Look, I’m not doing drugs. I’m not addicted to drugs. I don’t have an issue.” I was taking something that it turns out it was banned, and I had no clue.
My biggest takeaway was the amount of misinformation and lack of knowledge about [kratom] is ridiculous. So that’s why I have a huge appreciation about what you guys are doing. The name in itself “Kratom Science”.. The most important part is getting the right information out.
Do you think kratom would actually help members of the military, especially in combat?
That’s a big topic. We could spend all day talking about PTSD and the related flipping into a drug problem. It doesn’t even have to be PTSD. There’s all kinds of different treatments that are less conventional. There’s MDMA treatment for PTSD. If there’s MDMA treatment, what are people thinking when it comes to kratom? Of course I’m biased because it’s actually helped me. I’ve been depressed for I don’t know how long now, been anxious, been suicidal at times, and here I am talking to you on the phone. There’s a lot to be said about that. And of course especially now, I’m still taking kratom. I just took it right before this phone call. I just lost a 15 year career because some ex-husband was pissed off at me, and who wouldn’t be bummed out? But, you know, I’m having a good day today with my wife.
Do you have a job now?
No, the search continues. It all happened so abruptly. “Just so you know, your last day is next week.” As frustrating as it is, and I’m bitter about it, rightfully so.
It’s still new too.
The wound’s fresh, for sure. Of course I haven’t been in a civilian job market for 15 years. So I’ve learned, things have changed. So I’m applying for jobs…
Is there any way they could reverse the decision and you could go back in?
Oh no. It’s done now. The cherry on top of it all, is Friday, my last day, I had to go pick up my DD214, the paperwork saying you’re out, and there’s like a snapshot of your career. And at the bottom it says “Reasons for Discharge: Serious offense – drug abuse.”
That’s bullshit, man.
Because I’m sitting there like, no it’s not. But that’s what they classified it as.
I guess all we can do now is tell your story. And we’re trying to change the attitudes about kratom.
On my way out I even told people, “You guys need to train on this stuff. You need to get this information out there.” Because I promise, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one in the military taking this stuff. And the ones who still are just don’t have that angry ex-husband apparently that wants revenge. I know I wasn’t the only person that had no friggin’ clue that we couldn’t take it. But, it is what it is. We got dealt a crap hand in a card game we weren’t trying to even play. You know what I’m saying?
That is such a good quote.
It is what it is. And the madness continues, even still.
In Pennsylvania they’re talking about reversing marijuana convictions since everyone is developing a sane attitude about it. Maybe in the future we can do that with kratom. You are being wronged. It is an injustice.
When my discharge paper says “drug abuse” and I was treated as if I was taking bath salts at work or something, this sucks. I’ve tried my hardest for 15 years for you. I have hard feelings toward several people. I don’t have hard feelings toward my captain, my command who was the person who actually separated me. Throughout all that, he was the nicest, like “This sucks, man. I don’t want to be doing this, but I’m forced to. It’s black and white.” He didn’t have a choice, unfortunately. It was above his head. The higher-ups were the ones who were lumping me into this category of “drug abuser”. He was so sympathetic and apologized to me. I’m like, you’re doing your job and I have no hard feelings against you. But his hands were tied.
Thanks for doing this. Hopefully this will help change the attitudes about kratom so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
It might not amount to a fart in the wind. But at least it’s in the wind.
This interview is available via audio as Episode 16 of the Kratom Science Podcast.