PHILADELPHIA — Retired Marine Staff Sergeant Mike Whiter emptied a box full of orange pill bottles onto 22 people lying in the middle of Market Street at the end of Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Day Parade.
The 22 volunteers played dead in front of Independence Mall on Sunday to represent the average daily number of suicides by U.S. military veterans since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of them and Whiter sported olive-drab hoodies emblazoned with “Operation Overmed,” the project he started last summer to draw attention to the damaging effects to veterans of pharmaceutical overmedication by the VA.
In 2012, it was rare for Whiter to leave his house, let alone organize a protest.
He lost all contact with close friends and family and only knew the outside world from the TV shows that were his only entertainment. Pills the VA gave him to make him better just numbed him, and sapped what little was left of his motivation, and he all but shut down. Opening back up again took a little help from Mary Jane.
Over the last three years Whiter has gone from a virtual recluse to a successful photographer and prolific advocate of treating veterans medically with cannabis.
“When I heard a garbage truck backfire on Market street, I would duck behind a garbage can,” Whiter told The Daily Beast.
Cannabis saved Whiter’s life, he says, but he had a long way to come, and it wasn’t instantaneous. Whiter was in Kosovo with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the summer of 1999.
“This is when they started fucking with cluster bombs, so there were these little bomblets everywhere. There was this kid, he was 18, I think his family said, he was out there banging on a bomblet with a fucking shovel. And it blew up. There were body parts hanging from the trees.”
“They called us out there to bag him up. His arms and legs were gone, and we’re picking his torso up, and I got him [under the hips], and his skin, like, melted off, and I dropped him and it splashed in my face. I remember distinctly, it was in a field of lavender, and now when I smell lavender I feel sick. Even today, if I catch a whiff, it takes me right back there. That’s the kind of shit PTSD does to you.”
On his way back stateside from Kosovo Whiter’s unit was routed to Turkey for a humanitarian mission, to aid victims of the Aug. 17, 1999 Izmit earthquake which killed at least 17,000 people and left another 600,000 homeless.
His next deployment was in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“This is what people should know about Iraq: 80 percent of the time you’ve got your thumb up your ass. You’re craving that moment. And then it happens. And then it’s not what you thought,” said Whiter. “That kid walking to my guys’ tower might have a bomb strapped to him, sometimes he did. You don’t know. That’s the mind fuck.”
Whiter was stationed first at Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, about 50 miles west of Baghdad. He then received orders to fill in as platoon sergeant, supervising guard tower operations at several detention facilities. It was on that duty he fell from a guard tower at Abu Ghraib prison. Whiter recovered from serious injuries to his spine and was sent back to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.The Marines discharged Whiter on medical grounds in 2010. He moved to Philly and says he sank into a numb haze of prescription medication punctuated by sudden bouts of mortal panic.
He pushed away everyone in his life that might have provided a support system, and struggled with physical pain and the memories of combat.
The VA’s solution was always more pills—antidepressants and opiate pain killers. Over the first year VA psychiatrists prescribed Whiter 40 different medications, as many as seven at once.
The doctors doled out dangerous combinations of benzodiazepines like Xanax with narcotics like methadone and morphine in abundant doses.
“If they are checking contraindications, they’re trying to kill us,” he said.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died, I was taking a shower every now and then if I felt like it, I was shitting on everything.”
One day Whiter was watching television like always, when a voice from the box spoke to him.
“I was watching the National Geographic Channel one day, and a medical marijuana special came on, and it had a vet with PTSD and he said it helped him more than anything he’d ever been on.”
“That day I called a friend and asked her if she could get me some pot, and I smoked a joint, and it felt great.”
Rather than fogging his mind, Whiter says, marijuana brought him out of a desensitized trance.
“I just threw my pills away. I had pretty nasty withdrawals, but I smoked a lot of weed over those couple of months.” The worst and most lasting effects were “brain twitches” he felt for more than a year after stopping his antidepressant, Lexapro.
Weed gave Whiter something to focus on—he wanted to know why it helped him.
“All I wanted to do was learn about it, because I was fucking amazed at the way I felt. I got myself back.“Once you start feeling, you start healing. It’s like Frozen, man.”
Whiter met activist-entertainer Nikki Allen Poe at Smokedown Prohibition, a pro-legalization protest held monthly at Independence Mall from December 2012 to December 2013. Poe drafted Whiter from medicinal use to marijuana activism.
“We sat down, we smoked a bowl, and we decided I was gonna be an activist.”
Since then, Whiter has been cited for smoking weed on federal property, entered photography school, and received the first ticket for marijuana possession under Philadelphia’s new decriminalization ordinance. His Operation Overmed series features bluntly staged portraits as well as still-life—his style is dark and precise.
Two weeks before Sunday’s parade Whiter got a call from Captain Stephen Glenn, commander of the Philadelphia Police Civil Affairs Division.
“He said he’d heard something about a veteran planning to disrupt the parade, and did I know anything about that. I told him ‘Yeah, Captain Glenn, I do, it’s me, but I’m not planning on disrupting anything.’”
Whiter says he was actually torn by the possibility his demonstration would be taken as an insult—the last thing the veteran of two combat tours wanted to do was disrespect his comrades or the memory of fallen soldiers. Sunday’s demonstration was more a memorial than protest—“a ‘veterans lives matter’ die-in,” he called it.
The organizers of parade allowed Whiter a table space but denied him permission to enter the parade route.
As the procession made its way around City Hall and then east to Independence Mall, canvassers recruited by Whiter to pass out flyers covertly tipped-off parade-watchers to the coming theatrics.
Next to Whiter’s table he had placed 22 flag-capped combat boots—he was assigned the spot furthest from the street among 30 or so next to the parade grandstand.
Whiter said he was approached by several soldiers who warned him “we’re not going to let you ruin today for us,” but brushed them off and focused on the planned demonstration. He has translated a singleness of mind from the battlefield to his activism.
“This is very mission-oriented. Dude, I worked this out in therapy. I’m a mission guy.”
His mission was joined by another medical cannabis corps, Weed for Warriors. Philly is the second to last stop on the Warriors’ eight city “Cannonball Run” bus tour, which ends next week in Washington, D.C.
As the last of 140 organizations approved to march passed 6th Street, Whiter and his cadre were escorted into the road by Civil Affairs officers. They stopped in front of the bleachers where they laid a banner which read “Every day in the USA 22 vets end their lives,” and the mock corpses unceremoniously took their places on the ground, while the parade emcee made an effort to yell his closing remarks over the din.
The 22 remained supine for more than five minutes. Whiter along with some of the Warriors addressed the parade-goers with a megaphone. One told the crowd about his suicide attempt, and ended his address, “Help a veteran, don’t just thank a veteran.” At one point Whiter seized the megaphone to directly address the crowd across the street—the grandstand had already been deserted. He wasn’t there to disrespect those in the parade, “but not a single one of them mentioned the thousands of veterans dying every year of suicide.”
For Whiter, the Warriors, and their potential converts to herbal medication, there is no certainty from the federal government on whether they can have the medicine they badly need.
A Senate committee approved a funding bill earlier this year that would allow marijuana to be prescribed by the VA to treat PTSD—a medicine the VA claims might do more than harm than good.
But the White House signaled early its opposition to such measures in response to an online petition. Even though that petition had 17,000 fewer signatures than normally required for a response, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske wrote to 8,258 signers “marijuana is not a ‘benign drug’ and does not meet standards of safe or effective medicine.”
NPR reported Oct. 28 that the Army has discharged more than 20,000 soldiers with mental issues like PTSD for “misconduct” between 2009 and 2013. This was only revealed after a soldier recorded a therapy session and took the tape to media.
More than a fifth of the 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD or depression, according to the VA. According to a 2014 survey (PDF) by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, almost half of its members “have known at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has died by suicide, and 31 percent have thought about taking their own life since joining the military.”
Veteran and other medical cannabis users in the region have come to regard Philadelphia as a sort of haven, in which they are free to apply their elsewhere illicit treatment. That sanctuary status is thanks to the work of local activists directly approaching local officials. During the parade, they got the attention of former councilman and mayor-elect Jim Kenney, who successfully pushed his decriminalization bill through last year, after lobbying by activists like Poe, Whiter, and others.