WASHINGTON, D.C. — If, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested in June, America’s suicide epidemic has become a national public health crisis, what label would apply to the same phenomenon unfolding within the ranks of our active-duty and military veterans?

Since the launch of the “Global War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. warriors have been killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians. And the numbers are startling.

From 2005-2015, more than 75,000 Americans with military backgrounds took their lives, according to a recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study, at a rate of 20.6 every day. Of those daily rates, 3.8 were still in uniform. In other words, during a 10-year stretch, the Pentagon lost 13,870 troops to self-inflicted actions — roughly twice the totals claimed by hostile action.

The numbers are piling up, even as near-miraculous advances in battlefield medicine are saving lives that would have been lost a generation ago. But more often than not, suicidal impulses are triggered by wounds that can’t be seen — chiefly, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to many veterans in the system, federally imposed solutions for pain management of this magnitude are not only ineffective, but lethal.

In response, a loosely coordinated movement of veterans, mostly from the Iraq/Afghanistan theaters, is pushing hard for legal access to medicinal marijuana. However, through their actions or inaction, every president and Congress for nearly 50 years has regarded cannabis as more dangerous than cocaine, and every bit as addictive as heroin. But this inertia is now opposed by 68 percent of Americans who, according to the latest Gallup poll, favor full legalization of cannabis.

In June, Oklahoma became the 30th state to ratify medical marijuana, and July ushered in Vermont as the ninth state to normalize personal use. By all appearances, the U.S. is entering the final stages of prohibition. But for those in the armed forces, every state in the union could legalize marijuana, and it would make no difference for troops seeking alternative modes of relief from PTSD and TBI.

Unless cannabis is removed from the stigma of Schedule 1, a Controlled Substances Act designation that quarantines marijuana as a drug with no medicinal merit, active-duty members who risk sampling its benefits will be guilty of breaking federal law and/or the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the bedrock of military law.

They may hobble along on artificial limbs and carry chunks of shrapnel with every step, but a dirty urinalysis could destroy their military careers, smear their permanent records, activate the forfeiture of cash signing bonuses, and cost them their G.I. Bill and pensions, not to mention a lifetime ban from veteran service organizations.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent eight months looking into the veterans’ war on Schedule 1. The movement is energized partially by fear of accidental overdoses in a nation swimming in highly addictive painkillers. Often prescribed by the VA, these combinations, say many veterans, are stupor-inducing “combat cocktails” that leave them foggy and disengaged, with side effects such as suicidal ideation, severe constipation and sexual dysfunction.

But the movement is also driven by scientific research, now drilling deep into marijuana’s chemistry. And the veterans’ campaign against Schedule 1 draws from personal experience, with abundant testimonials vouching for marijuana’s ability to alleviate their anxieties in ways that pharmaceuticals have not.

What the movement is up against is a 20th-century artifact with deep xenophobic roots buttressed by law-and-order overtones set by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Established in 1930, the Bureau was led by a commissioner who once declared “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Superficial attitudes may have changed, but a Nixon-era law that was shaped by divisive politics — not science — has remained intractable. And the cost to America’s veterans is so troubling that the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says procedures for withholding medical marijuana from veterans are probably obsolete.

“Let’s change the system. There’s nothing magic about it, it wasn’t written in blood,” says Gen. Hugh Shelton — the first Special Forces-qualified officer to wear four stars and the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. “I think it’s something our nation needs to be dealing with, and I think it might even be higher in the chain than the VA on the federal level in Washington. We ought to even consider having the National Security Council take a look at it.”

On Memorial Day, a handful of veterans convened in Washington, D.C., to lobby the national conscience for access to medical marijuana. They unfolded a portable, 100-foot long wall of portraits — all military suicides — at the front door of the VA before marching it to the gates of the White House.

The Herald-Tribune examines the statistics, the anguish, the science and the politics that forced them to go to war with their own government. To view the full report, go to rxforveterans.com.

— billy.cox@heraldtribune.com