Stephen Mandile was injured while deployed 12 years ago for Operation Iraqi Freedom III.
As the Uxbridge native and sergeant in the US Army National Guard explained to the Milford Daily News in 2012:
I was the lead vehicle in a convoy driving through Baghdad to bring a prisoner to a courthouse for a hearing, and there was a car driving erratically trying to get out in front of our convoy, which they knew not to do because we had signs saying not to do it, and not to get too close … We were going 50 or 60 (mph), and once he caught up he came to a dead stopped, which is the M.O. of suicide bombers. I didn’t have time to do anything besides crash into him, and run the vehicle off the road.
Mandile was seriously injured in the ordeal, and has been recovering since. As was noted in the same profile: “Mandile suffered a slew of injuries during the crash—including five ruptured discs, spinal stenosis, damage to the sciatic nerve, radiculopathy in both legs, and a traumatic brain injury—and was taken to hospitals in Iraq and Kuwait before returning to Fort Dix in Sept. of 2005.”
Following his return, the US Department of Veterans Affairs offered a decade of free drugs to treat Mandile’s pain; among them: Methadone, Morphine, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Percocet, Fentanyl, Benzos, muscle relaxers, you name it. He took them until he started feeling suicidal last year, at which point his wife stepped in and suggested that he try marijuana instead. It worked, and Mandile has been on a crusade to help other veterans ever since.
Last year, frustrated by Gov. Charlie Baker’s non-response to a request for a meeting, Mandile took his advocacy to the people through local media outlets; he picketed and even slept outside of the State House, then also posted up outside of Baker’s home holding a sign requesting an appointment (which the veteran never got).
Knowing that Mandile has met privately with many elected officials over the past several months, I asked him to provide a list of those who have been willing to hear him out. Among those who were willing to hear what the governor wouldn’t make time for: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey; state senators Patricia Jehlen, Jason Lewis, Jennifer Flanagan, Linda Dorcena Forry, Michael Rush, and John Keenan; state reps Mark Cusack, Mike Connolly, and Kevin Kuros; Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett; Boston City Councilors Tito Jackson, Michelle Wu, Ayanna Pressley, Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, Annissa Essaibi George; and Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.
Clearly someone who is influencing policies and people in high places, I caught up with Mandile so that he could explain his invigorated mission and course of action.
MC: What’s your past week been like?
SM: I met with [Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy] Co-Chair Rep. Mark Cusack [and] laid out a formal plan for veterans collectives. We want the gray market not to be gray, for it to be legal because it [the gray market] serves more patients than the current operating [state-registered marijuana dispensaries]. We suggested that these collectives would be required to gain local host agreements and be 501(c)(3) nonprofits for a year, [and] that they be membership-driven with no retail locations.
I also suggested allowing the collectives to sell the overflow of our products and strains to the dispensaries as well … [and recommended that there be] no criminal restrictions for employment at these collectives for any [prior] marijuana offense. Rep. Cusack was interested in hearing more, and I feel he might even co-sponsor a bill we are working on. I am confident [Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy Chair] Sen. [Pat] Jehlen will sponsor it.
I’m hoping to have my nonprofit, Veterans Alternative Healing, Inc. (VAH) be able to qualify for this very program. Once they let the veterans do it, it would be only natural to allow other patients to benefit …
Any other politicians in particular who you have been communicating with?
Yes, [Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson has been] very supportive, as his district has been hit by the opiate issue and the marijuana injustice issue.
I’m also communicating with Sen. [Linda] Dorcena Forry to host a private meeting with the entire marijuana committee, specifically for veterans, some with PTSD, who might not feel comfortable testifying [in public]. She gave me her card after I testified, so I followed up, [spoke] with her for a few minutes in person in her office, and additionally have been working with her office. She’s trying to get the entire committee together, or as many as possible.
Sen. Jehlen is great too, we are emailing back and forth quite a bit. It feels [surprising that] they are not blowing smoke up my ass like you expect from most politicians. They really do want to work together. At least some of them.
Can you elaborate on plans for your VAH collective?
We are hoping to have as many strains as people want, with the lowest cost to our members, and will offer greater discounts for vets who want to volunteer.
What kind of work would they be doing volunteering?
Trimming [and] daily activities [at] the grow facility … We would also hope to offer emergency support and access to veterans getting off opiates, so that’s a priority. Also peer-support group programs. [We will] be doing community outreach. Veterans helping other veterans is the focus.
You have tried to get a meeting with Gov. Baker in the past. Where are you with that now?
I stopped reaching out to him because I’m so focused on helping people instead of asking people for help. I’m positive that eventually our paths will have to cross. Which works out because when I first called to meet with him, I had nothing to offer. Now I have VAH and another new nonprofit, We are Allies. I’m the president and founder of both.
We Are Allies started when I was invited to be a mentor at the opiate hackathon back in September—an event put on by GE, [Gov. Baker], and Mass General Hospital. The group I was in won the Anti-Stigma Award. Out of that, we got incorporated and now are teamed with doctors from Mass General, some graphic designers, and another [person] in recovery … We are Allies will [be] participating at Moving Beyond Stigma, [a forum series] put on by William James College in Boston with Mayor Marty Walsh. Your boy [is] giving opening remarks on [May 23].
Additionally, I’m personally setting up a peer-support group for homeless vets in recovery from addiction at New England Center and Home for Veterans in Boston next to City Hall—250 homeless vets sleep there every night.