Perry Parks, a Vietnam combat veteran and highly decorated retired military officer of 28 years, says killing is an unnatural act.
If you take the average person off the street, he said, he will not be able to point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger.
“They have to be trained to kill, so most people will pull the gun up at the last minute and miss,” Parks said, noting that the U.S. military got hip to this trend following WWI, when which soldiers subconsciously missed the mark about 75 percent of the time.
Combat training has since been altered to better teach people to kill. Instead of fixed bullseye targets, soldiers now practice shooting at popup human silhouettes. But whether or not a person has been trained to kill, the brutality of war can leave a dark and sometimes permanent mark on their psyche.
Parks, like 30 percent of all Vietnam War vets and at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, left the army with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was featured in the 2009 Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Good Soldier, which follows five combat vets, each from a different American war, as they sign up, go to battle, then eventually become disillusioned with war and rethink what it means to be a “good soldier.” In the film, Parks explains how the act of killing later torments so many combat veterans, himself included.
Photo: Parks on location filming “The Good Soldier.”
Like many, Parks has tried a literal handful of authorized pills to treat his insomnia and other symptoms, but he’s found what helps him most is just to smoke some weed.
Now, Parks is leading the national fight to allow veterans to access cannabis. He is the former president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, which focuses on medical marijuana policy reform in the state, and continues to work with the organization as a legislative liaison. His primary job is to reach out to state officials and raise money for the organization.
While 20 states and Washington D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, only a few of those states grant medical marijuana access to people with PTSD—and Parks lives in North Carolina where the use of the herb for any purpose is restricted and severely enforced.
Take Josh Cook, a veteran from North Carolina who was injured in Iraq and medically discharged when he began to experience seizures. After trying a series of legal seizure medications, Cook found that cannabis alone helped; in fact, it stopped his seizures altogether for eight months. But in January the local police showed up at Cook’s door and asked to search his house. He agreed, and the cops found an electric coffee bean grinder Cook had been using to grind his marijuana. Cook was arrested and charged with two counts of marijuana possession.
Nevertheless, Parks is public about the fact that he uses an “illegal substance,” and he has never been arrested—yet. He chalks his good fortune, in part, to the fact that he’s extremely outspoken about his pot use. He’s brought medical information about cannabis to meetings with the local DA and mayor, his preacher, and even the local sheriff to try to educate them about the proven medical benefits of cannabis use.
“And, of course, I’ve taken full advantage of the military background,” he said, noting that people tend to be much less inclined to arrest a white, retired military officer in uniform than they are a black man or a teenager, for example.
“For years I didn’t wear my uniform, but got to thinking about how the joint chiefs of staff, when they go in and ask for millions of dollars for the military, they don’t go in in civilian clothes,” he said. “They wear their uniforms with all them brightly colored ribbons up front.”
Most who leave the military do not wear their uniforms to make a point, but Parks said he wears his “like an upside-down flag” to signal distress in the name of vets who are denied access to a safe medicine that could help them.
Although he’s been criticized by some for using military garb to make a point, he said his choice to do so is a moral prerogative as a Christian.
“Sometimes you have to go against the grain,” he said. “I told my pastor, just like you feel you were called to be a pastor, I feel I was called as a Christian to tell the truth [about medical marijuana]. … It’s not a sin to be ignorant, but if somebody gives you a chance to open your eyes, then it is one of the greatest sins not to be willing to open your eyes.”
Parks was dressed in full military regalia at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver this October. An adornment of ribbons and honors dangled from his chest, including a Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Air Medal and many more. He spoke at the conference as part of a roundtable discussion panel titled, “Medical Marijuana: What Comes Next?”
Among the issues Parks raised at the panel was the absurdity of banning a medicine for veterans in one state, while witnessing it heal people time and again the next state over. Parks calls the limits on access to medical marijuana “a healthcare tragedy few people recognize.”
“[W]hen you put a veteran in a combat zone in another country, the state he lives in should not [determine] the kind of treatment he’s gonna get when he gets home,” he said.
Parks joined the military a bright eyed 17-year-old in 1962. He stayed three years and spent 15 months in Korea, then returned home to a lack of job prospects.
“[I] looked around for about three months for opportunities and then somebody told me I could go back to work in a cotton mill,” he said, laughing. “I wasn’t about to do that.” So, he went back to the Army recruiter.
He reentered the military a 20-year-old French horn player and sports parachutist, hell-bent on flying a helicopter—it didn’t matter where.
“That was the whole dream,” he said. “It wasn’t so much going to Vietnam as it was, ‘I can fly a helicopter.’ Where you went didn’t really matter.”
So, Parks wound up spending 30 months in Vietnam before becoming “very disenchanted with the war,” the more he listened to protesters, and the older he got.
Photo: Perry Parks in Vietnam, 1966.
Two anti-war posters hit Parks particularly hard. One famously declared, “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” and the other asked, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”
“You know? What if everybody refused to fight?” Parks said. “That philosophical thing hit pretty deep for me and after 30 months I said, ‘You can go ahead and ask all you want but I ain’t coming back. I said that inThe Good Soldier, not to discourage all the guys I had spent time with or been in Vietnam with, but just to say that for the reasons they use the military now, you won’t get me back.”
Parks became a military airline transport pilot (ATP) with helicopter and multiengine airplanes, and holds ATP licenses in both helicopters and multiengine airplanes. He was also a designated pilot examiner for the FAA for 20 years and issued almost all helicopter pilot licenses for North Carolina during that time.
It wasn’t until he had retired from the military with PTSD symptoms that he took to smoking cannabis as a form of relief. Even then, he says, when somebody told him the plant had medical healing properties, he thought it was a joke.
“But when I found the relief, I went to my church and said, this is crazy because it really does seem to relieve the pain, and I’m no longer taking sleeping pills,” he said.
When Parks attended the Cannabis Therapeutics Conference on the efficacy of medical cannabis for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries in Rhode Island in April 2010, he learned the medical reasons why the herb was helping alleviate his symptoms. There, he met the Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam, who is best known for isolating and synthesizing, or “discovering” THC—the psychoactive element in cannabis—in 1964. Mechoulam also discovered the brain’s endocannabinoid system and the endogenous neurotransmitter anandamide decades later, and has published research showing cannabis’ potential healing effects on Israeli soldiers with brain injuries.
“When I saw all the scientific evidence that explained why I felt like this, I became even more determined and told my church, I’m gonna go public with this, I’m going to the newspaper, and I’m gonna try to tell people look, this is wrong,” Parks said.
Parks’ pastor, however, was not convinced. He insisted that Parks’ decision to advocate for medical marijuana access was wrong.
“[My pastor] said, ‘What has this got to do with Christianity?’” Parks said. “And I said, ‘It has everything to do with the church because your unaccepting attitude and your criminal, lowbrow look [at cannabis] scares everybody to death.’”
Parks and his wife have since switched to a new church.
Parks is continuing the fight. Last month, he wore his uniform to one of House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s taxpayer-funded anti-Obamacare press events in North Carolina, planning to use the event as an opportunity to speak up about medical marijuana access. When the moment felt right, Parks stood to address the room:
“This is a shame because this is a hearing on tragedies for healthcare and I have one that is really bad,” Parks said. “It involves all the veterans being denied medical treatment, not because of the kind of insurance they’ve got, but because of the treatment that’s offered.”
There were approximately 21.5 million U.S. military veterans in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last October, 9.7 percent of post-9/11 veterans remained unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate of suicide among U.S. veterans has never been higher, and in the U.S. right now, about 385,000 veterans have brain injuries. Studies have found that the risk of PTSD doubles when a soldier has suffered a brain injury. As an LA Times article reported in December, “[U]p to a fifth of U.S. service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home with a blast-related concussion or post-traumatic stress disorder — or both.”
“To me this statement should be in print about the size of a newspaper page: A brain surgeon says that [cannabis] helps the brain,” Parks said referring to CNN’s resident MD, Sanjay Gupta, who made headlines with the announcement that he no longer considers marijuana a health risk and recognizes its legitimate medical properties.
AlterNet ran an article last month that discussed a study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs showing that “22 veterans take their own lives every day — one suicide every 65 minutes” as well as a 2013 survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America that showed 30 percent of service members have considered or attempted suicide, and 45 percent reported that they know an Iraq or Afghanistan vet who has attempted suicide.
“In recent years, there have been significantly more US veteran and military deaths by suicide than in combat,” the article notes.
The article follows Staff Sergeant Mike Whiter, who attempted suicide three times after returning home from combat tours in Kosovo and Iraq. After learning about medical marijuana and PTSD on the Discovery Channel, Whiter switched from prescription drugs to marijuana. His life has improved markedly:
“No more sleepless nights, no more flashbacks, no more isolation in his home—in fact, Whiter is now the co-director of Philadelphia NORML and the founder of Pennsylvania Veterans for Medical Marijuana.”
While government organizations like the FDA and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have continually blocked federally sanctioned studies on the topic, research is increasingly connecting cannabis with reduced PTSD symptoms including flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia.
Brain imaging research was published in May in the journal Molecular Psychiatry providing physiological evidence behind cannabis’ ability to mitigate some PTSD symptoms. In July, High Times published an article titled “Treating PTSD With Pot,” which states:
“Research has shown that there is a connection between the amount of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, known as CB1 receptors, and post-traumatic stress.”
The Leaf Online published an article December 16 by Paul Armentano noting that the scientific journalDrug Testing and Analysis published evidence in July that the use of cannabis and cannabinoids likely mitigates symptoms associated with PTSD.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies has been working since 2010 to achieve government approval for a study that will look at whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana can help reduce PTSD symptoms in 50 veterans with PTSD. MAPS spokesperson Brad Burge says the organization is currently waiting to hear back from the National Institute on Drug Abuse following its Oct 24 resubmission of the study’s protocol—which is now FDA and IRB approved—to find out whether NIDA will sell them the marijuana they need for the study.
“Unfortunately, unlike the FDA, which must respond to submissions within 30 days of receiving them, NIDA has no such time limit, so we don’t know how long we’ll be waiting,” Burge said in an email to AlterNet. “It could be days, or months, and in the meantime, they’re successfully blocking research that already has the go-ahead from multiple agencies.”
Perry Parks says while there have been a number of positive breakthroughs when it comes to marijuana law in the U.S. this year, he does not see cause to celebrate just yet, as veterans across the country continue to suffer needlessly.
“This is happening to veterans right now because of bad laws and bad policies that aren’t based in facts and research,” he said. “Once you create an unjust law and color people’s minds so that they can’t see the truth anymore, you have some responsibility for that. You also have an obligation, if you recognize it’s the truth, you have to speak the truth.”
Parks intends to continue to spread the truth and fight for medical access until cannabis is available to help people in every state.
April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet.