Shawn Wilson or “Big Shawn”, is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native and graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School. He grew up on the streets of Philadelphia and experienced several traumatic situations. He graduated and received several educational curriculums such as Army Basic Training, Army Intelligence Officer Training (Academy in Fort Devens, MA) and Philadelphia Police Academy Training.
Shawn believes that service and servanthood equals success and is committed to helping veterans receive the benefits to which they are entitled. After being involved with many traumatic experiences over his lifetime, he understands Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and fights to help Veterans also suffering from it.
As CEO of a non-profit foundation called “Vets in the Hood” or known as “United States Veterans Restoration Group (USVRG)”, Shawn has helped many veterans by improving their quality of life and is on a mission to positively impact millions of first responders globally. He has a passion for helping Veterans and is always looking to partner with those with the same interests.
What’s your perception about your organization and career and especially on your personal battle with PTSD?
Start from scratch. I was born here in Philadelphia…raised here until I was 18. I saw a lot of things… a lot of trauma…a lot of things that happened. I’ve seen a lot of death…seen my best friend get murdered at 12 and that left a lot of trauma. It happens more than people realize in our neighborhoods and our communities. When I seen that first thing happen at 12… that was horrible. I went into the army at 18 and got injured not knowing that I was eligible for compensation from getting hurt. So I finished my time in the army (Honorable Hardship Discharge) and I came home injured and didn’t even know it. So for 15 years I was without any benefits and was undiagnosed for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When I came home— my first job was a maximum-security prison in Philadelphia. I worked there for a couple of years and I seen a lot of trauma there. I saw a lot of suicides… saw a lot of stabbings… saw a lot of violence that happened with the people [inmates].
Then, I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire… I became a police officer for the Philadelphia Police Department. I did that for 15 years until I got injured on duty. Again, I saw a lot of death… I saw a lot of trauma… saw a lot of tragedy A lot of violence and once again, was undiagnosed and untreated [PTSD]. After the injury, I ended up having to take opioids… that happened in 2005. So, from 2005 all the way up to 2011– I was addicted and a functioning addict on Percocet from a work injury that I had to get a couple of surgeries from. And that was how I ended up getting and for the first time trying marijuana. Now I went from being a narcotics cop (That’s all I did for 15 years). I was arresting people for the same thing that turned around and ended up saving my life. Cannabis has become a part of how I function. It helps me deal with anxiety… it helps me deal with PTSD… It also helps me deal with a lot of the physical pain from previous surgeries. I began advocating on the behalf of cannabis with the act of suicidology. It ended up becoming an answer to opioids abuse. It’s a lot of us who deal with PTSD, anxiety, depression… A lot of times we really are afraid to come forth and say something is wrong because we didn’t want to lose our jobs… I knew that I had to take care of my family and I didn’t wanna lose my job. I knew things were going on inside of my body… I knew things were going on inside of my mind and in my spirit…that’s why 22 of us end up dying by suicide every day. Once I was able to identify and except the fact that I was dealing with mental health issues is when I ended up helping other people. I began to find other veterans and other people who dealt with opioids abuse and other substance abuse to help and coach them. Then it became clear to me that I needed to do something on a bigger level. So that’s when I formed “Vets in the Hood”
And “Vets in the hood” became my lifesaver and a lifesaver for other veterans. I helped other veterans get through the process of receiving benefits. When I was on opioids… I was putting on a front and I didn’t care about myself. Basically wearing a mask for a long period of time. So once I began to start seeing the benefits for myself I wanted to do the same for other people. It became what I knew and what I understood. It became my purpose… That was to continue to spread love and show love to individuals like myself who run to danger— when everyone is running from it. No one is there to help you pick up the pieces. So I wanted to start an organization that was going to help veterans and first responders and that’s what I did. In 2017 we did that [Vets in the Hood], and since then we won awards but most of all we helped other veterans who may have been homeless and are now in better situations. To date we’ve helped 100 veterans. We help them get lifetime benefits that alluded them because of a lack of knowledge.
I am now on the board for “All together now PA” [Plant Medicine Division], which brings together PA rural and urban communities through substantial fruit and vegetables agriculture. Basically getting the knowledge out about marijuana as an alternative to opioids in terms to be able to heal holistically. I was offered a position as a board member. Through creative arts I do a lot of singing and acting as therapy and I’m helping young people Open up to that type of therapy as well. Also with yoga and medical marijuana for treatment as well. We have a couple of podcasts we’re looking to get going so we can try to get some of this information out. I just finished writing a book about my past experiences of being a black veteran and police officer and will be completing a documentary on my life while going through all of the stages of mental health issues. Coming out of that losing almost 100 pounds— redefining myself through marijuana advocacy.
So people hear me talking and ask me, “Yo, so like are you a cop?” I’m like, “Yo, yes I am (or was)!” It’s just…I did my job for so long [Narcotics] I’m from the hood… I understand the culture and I know who I am and what I’ve done. I did what I did out of the fact that I didn’t understand even myself. Everyone who smokes marijuana isn’t smoking it just recreationally but it’s a lot of people who use this plant as medicine. My thing is as a veteran, a police officer, and correctional officer, is that I use my platform to get this information out to as many people possible. When they [people] find out what I’ve done and my background they start to look at me funny and then they start to look at other people. I don’t want them to look at anyone differently… I want them to know that it literally saves lives and to be as helpful as I can. On any medium, I want to spread this message that it [marijuana] should be legalized. Opioids aren’t illegal but, they are lethal. That isn’t fair, I was literally taking percs and drinking Hennessy every day. It was because it became so addictive and it almost killed me. As soon as I was able to come up out of it I was able to start losing weight and getting myself back. I was able to find myself again. It was like woke up from a zombie state. Life is been totally different for me and I want to get this message out and give people the power to do the same thing.
Wow that was a mouthful. I can’t believe you said all of this And you are a cop?… I mean are you not a cop or?
No Dre I retired. I got hurt. I’ve been inside of five different shootings [five different shoot outs (as an undercover cop)] I thank God because I never got shot and I never got injured. I’ve lost people in the department…[3 partners]. One of my partners got into a fight with a guy and he ended up having a heart attack and passed away. I had just left him to take on a new assignment. He was by himself and I kicked myself for that all the time. It took me a long time to get over that and still sometimes bothers me now because I knew if I was with him that would not of happened. I blamed myself for a longtime and then I lost two other partners to cancer. Along with that so many people don’t understand if you don’t have mental health issues. If you’ve never been diagnosed. If you’ve never been treated. It’s like a homeless person you see with five coats on in the middle of August. Not that they have a physical issue— they have a mental issue.
That’s the same way if you’re not dealing with your mental health issue. If you’re not dealing with it in the right way or in the right time… each trauma you go through is a coat that you put on….and you continue to put the coats on. Especially when you see people get murdered, shot, and burnt beyond recognition. You are not a first responder, you just hear about it on the news and say, “Oh that’s a shame.” and go on with your life. As a first responder, you don’t do that. You get the call…you’re the first in there, you have to deal with it. Unless you are equipped mentally and spiritually to deal with that— you are subject to the derivatives of that. Anything you see doesn’t leave…it’s stuck with you. I would come home and my wife would ask me “Babe, what you do today?” I’m thinking you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not telling you what I seen or just saw. When you leave in the morning you don’t know if you’re coming back at night. In Philadelphia, you only get five years worth of benefits [after retirement] because they don’t expect you to live past 55. In my plan, I retired at 50 and I only have five years of medical after retirement. Meaning whatever issues that I have after that I just have them. If you retire with PTSD, depression, or anxiety… there’s no benefits after 5 years. We need lifetime medical because of the lifetime trauma. Just because you retire physically does not mean you retire mentally . That’s my platform. That’s my vision.
So is there something you’ve been thinking about doing? Can you go to the board? I’m not sure how the department works?
To be honest with you, platforms like this is the perfect opportunity for me to get this thing out. The reason I say that is because it’s so controversial. This is America anything that’s controversial will give you a platform. It’s a lot of veterans organizations that seek to legalize marijuana but zero [That I know of] are first responders. I feel like if people were presented the alternative of medical marijuana there would be less suicides. It’s not so much of you getting high but, more like an actual therapy for anxiety and depression. I feel like everyone has anxiety, it’s just that some people deal with it better. You have to control it or it will control you.
Absolutely. I give you the upmost respect for being able to say that and to be comfortable with talking about it. That really is the first step.
Acceptance is always the first step. I was suicidal and the crazy part about it is that being suicidal was brought about from an opioid addiction because psychotropic drugs would be given as antidepressants. Then when I started doing marijuana. I started hiding that because I didn’t want anyone to know that I was doing it. I wasn’t being obedient to what God was trying to tell me what to do which was to let it go. Let go of what other people’s opinions of me and focus on me and him. I focused on him and he gave me the courage to actually put it out there. Once I put it out there, I started seeing all these other people [Who I knew] sending messages and reaching to me about it [medical marijuana]. My aunt reached out to me and was like “Nephew, I want to know more about CBD.” That blew my mind. I’m like my auntie? She’s like 70 years old. So I gave her the information and she went to go get some drops. That made me understand that there is always going to be someone in need of knowledge that you are able to provide them. So you can’t hold on to something that was given to you freely. The information came to me free so I need to get it out there to them. Now I have pastors looking at cannabis in a whole different light which is what we need. What’s been an eye-opener for me is getting this information out in faith-based communities and seeing the responses that were all positives. I’m really happy about that.
One last thing, how do you feel about working with us at Black Cannabis?
My thoughts on working with Black Cannabis is it’s a blessing. I’ve met Flip [Phil Charles], Leo[Leo Bridgewater], and Rani [Rani Soto]. Once I met them a lot of things began to happen for me. Working with Black Cannabis gives us a further platform to keep enlightening and empowering other people to live a better quality of life. I want to advocate and work alongside with Black Cannabis to engage with getting the information out there. I also would like Black Cannabis to be apart of what we are doing. Basically, I want to be Black Cannabis Philly. That’s my ultimate. Anything Black Cannabis I want to be apart of!