Navy SEAL and Army Ranger veterans experience lasting mental health recovery from one or two psychedelic therapy sessions — the VA may provide access

(This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2022 issue of Epoch Times but was pulled by senior editors for being too controversial.)

By Elaine Marshall

Navy SEAL veteran Chris Maddox stood over the filled tub in his San Francisco hotel room, a knife in one hand and his phone set to dial 911 in the other, unable to decide on a course of action. His group was headed towards Mexico the next morning to participate in a psychedelic therapy retreat for special operations veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

But he didn’t think he could go through with it. Not just the trip to Mexico, but any of it anymore. After 12 years of multiple combat deployments, he had been medically retired with treatment-resistant PTSD and TBI, set adrift into the isolation of civilian life. Then, the intake questions for the retreat days earlier dredged up long-buried memories and feelings from his time in the military, and he sunk into a place where he felt hollow and undeserving.

“I knew this retreat had the potential to help me, but I didn’t feel like I deserved a chance at healing,” said Maddox.

In the end, he put down the phone and the knife and instead returned to a reliable standby after almost a year of sobriety, getting drunk and hoping this would be the time he didn’t wake up. Pounding on the door and the windows later roused him. “Chris!” male voices shouted, followed by more pounding. “Chris, open the door!”

Maddox and his traveling companions shared a similar history of combat adversity and brotherhood. The guys rallied him out of bed to continue the trip, and he emerged from his experience in Mexico with dramatic, life-changing results.

Maddox is one of the lucky ones. For most veterans, the rate of recovery from PTSD is less than 30 percent. Veterans also have a 50 percent higher suicide rate than the average person and suicides among post 9-11 veterans are four times higher than combat deaths, with an estimated 114,000 veterans having died by suicide since 2001.

Multiple factors have been cited for the suicide epidemic among veterans. PTSD comes with concomitant disorders of depression, addiction, and anxiety that lock their victims into a neurological prison. The hypervigilance, distrust, and fear that keep a soldier alive during deployment turn into a spiral of self-destruction at home.

Many also lose their sense of identity and team camaraderie when they return to civilian life. For special operations veterans who were elite warriors in deadly high-pressure environments, the tedium of civilian life can feel like decay.  

“I had tried every western-medicine-based approach, was on 12 different psychiatric drugs simultaneously, have been in rehab multiple times, and have been to multiple psychiatrists,” said Maddox.

“I have done cognitive processing therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, equine therapy, canine therapy…you name it I’ve done it. The psychedelic therapy in Mexico completely revolutionized my mental health within four days. I was able to get off all of my medications, I’m in a steady job, and things are great with my family. I feel like I’m me again.”

“Being a special ops vet is like having a Ferrari that you’re only allowed to drive at 15 miles per hour,” said Jeff Smith (not his real name), an Army Ranger veteran who has used psychedelics in his own healing journey from PTSD.

Smith became a firefighter in a large metropolitan area, in part to quench his own ongoing need for high-octane service. “It helps to have a sense of purpose or a calling to dedicate yourself to when you get out of the military.”

With 24 veterans dying by suicide each day and conventional treatments hitting dead ends in a overwhelmed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system, it’s no surprise the psychedelic renaissance found its way into the veteran community. Because psychedelics are classified as Schedule 1 drugs until the FDA approves them for treatment, it’s not possible to track how many veterans are employing psychedelic therapy, although advocates estimate it’s in the thousands.

Currently, veterans seek treatment in one of two ways: Through word-of-mouth connections to underground communities, or through travel to countries where psychedelic therapy is legal.

“It’s an absolute embarrassment that on a large scale veterans are going to Central and South America for lifesaving treatment because there is no access here,” said Army Ranger veteran Jesse Gould, who founded Heroic Hearts Project (HHP) after his own PTSD recovery through psychedelic therapy. 

Gould is an outspoken and driven advocate and predicts a paradigm shift is imminent.

“Veterans by the thousands are actively pursuing psychedelics right now,” said Gould. “Psychedelic therapy is coming, whether people like it or not.

They’re passing FDA trials and they’re in the public zeitgeist. The problem now is we’re letting our stigmas and fears get in the way of what the science is telling us.”

The acceptance of psychedelic therapy is seeping into mainstream consciousness drop by drop. With the explosion of research in the last decade, an increasing number of states and municipalities are approving psychedelic research, treatment, or decriminalization. In July of 2022, the VA launched five clinical trials to study MDMA (the drug known as Ecstasy) and psilocybin, or “magic mushrooms,” for the mental health disorders common among veterans, and other privately funded veteran studies are underway.

Texas lawmakers surprised the rest of the country when they voted almost unanimously in 2021 to require the state to study the risks and benefits of psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine for veterans, and to conduct a clinical trial using psilocybin to treat veterans with PTSD.
This made Texas the first state in the country to approve state funding for psychedelic research since the War on Drugs ended research started in the 1950s.

“I see Texas as an example that many others want to follow,” said Brad Burge, founder of Integration Communications. Burge is the Director of Communications and Public Relations for Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS). VETS is another organization that supports veterans with PTSD, TBI, and other mental health challenges who are seeking psychedelic therapy by providing coaching and funding for travel to clinics inside and outside the U.S.

Navy SEAL veteran Marcus Capone and his wife Amber founded VETS after psychedelic therapy helped Marcus recover from PTSD and TBI. 

“VETS was instrumental in Texas legislating psychedelic research for veterans,” said Burge. “When lawmakers heard personal testimonies from special ops vets like Marcus, it flew through legislative sessions. The bill had nothing to do with decriminalization or legalization, just research. It gave conservative policymakers the political leeway to support our troops by getting in front of psychedelic legislation for the very first time.”

Psychedelic therapy hadn’t been on Maddox’s radar when a veteran friend suggested it.

“When my friend reached out to me, I thought he was crazy. ‘You want me to go to Mexico and sit with a shaman?’ But then I thought, you know what? I’ll do anything to get better, what do you want me to do?”

In the veteran’s retreat, Maddox underwent a session with ibogaine, a psychoactive plant native to Africa that is showing tremendous promise for not only substance abuse disorder and PTSD, but also brain injury. An ibogaine journey lasts longer than other psychedelics, about 20 hours. The journey is often described as grueling and unforgiving, yet revelatory. Subjects recount being taken through an audit of the good, the bad, and the ugly about themselves, typically with ample time spent on “the ugly.” Yet they also talk about connecting with God, or a universal oneness, and seeing their life from a “zoomed out” and loving perspective.

Researchers have been gathering clues to explain why just one or two sessions can lift a subject out of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction. Maddox completely lost interest in alcohol and his self-sabotaging thoughts just four days after his experience.

Psychedelic therapy, whether it’s through psilocybin, ibogaine, ketamine, MDMA, or ayahuasca, is believed to work by overwriting self-destructive neural pathways.

People suffering from mental health disorders often describe feeling stuck. This is, neurologically speaking, accurate. They are trapped in neural “ruts” so hardwired into the brain that they begin to change its shape. Imagine walking the same dirt path so frequently that it burrows deep enough into the ground so that you can no longer see over the top or climb your way out. This is what being trapped in these mental health disorders feels like neurologically.

Psychedelic therapy wipes the neurological slate clean so the individual can start laying more positive networks instead. Think of a ski run that is groomed at the end of the day, ready for fresh tracks. Researchers describe this as a “mystical experience” in which the individual is liberated from their neurological prison into personal agency. 

Smith said some veterans and first responders are reluctant to seek treatment lest they go “soft” and lose their edge. But in his ongoing role as a firefighter dealing with traumatic events while on the job, he hasn’t found that to be the case.

“We spend so much time building our armor to survive combat or as a first responder,” said Smith. “Being tough allows you to perform in high-risk situations. Getting sucked into your feelings could get you killed, there’s no time for that. But I have found working with psychedelics does not cause me to lose the edge to perform well on the job. I can turn it on at work and turn it off when I come home to my family.”

The truth is, psychedelic therapy is rarely “soft,” much less an easy fix or a magic bullet. All the veterans I talked to said the same thing—the psychedelic experience was one the hardest things they’ve ever done.

“My ibogaine journey was the scariest experience of my life,” said Maddox, who continues to work with psychedelics to learn more about himself and to train as a guide for veteran retreats.

“I’m not going to lie, psychedelics still terrify me. It’s very powerful medicine, I still work with a coach for one month prior and one month after each session. I have to get my head in the right mindset to do it.”

Although psychedelic research is showing dramatic results, stigmatization from the 60s and 70s persists. In 2020, Oregon voters passed a measure to allow psilocybin therapy in approved centers with trained facilitators. Yet 75 percent of Oregon counties had measures on the Nov. 8 ballot to either opt-out or to ban psilocybin outright. Opponents cite the potential ruin of rural character, safety concerns, and insufficient training requirements for facilitators.

Opponents also confuse the psilocybin measure with Oregon’s recent decriminalization of small amounts of drugs. Smith, the Army Ranger vet who is a firefighter, understands the ire. He has seen a dramatic uptick in overdoses and drug-related calls since the decriminalization measure passed.

But it irritates him that people confuse that with psilocybin therapy. He has personally never been on an emergency call involving a psychedelic in his years on the job, but he responds to opiate- and amphetamine-related calls daily.

“People always say thank you for your service, but I’m tired of my friends and former teammates suffering and dying,” said Smith. “If you want to thank us, give us access to a therapy that is actually saving lives.”

Organizations that connect veterans with psychedelic therapy:

Psychedelics commonly used therapeutically

  • Psilocybin: Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been explored to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, anorexia, PTSD, OCD, and anxiety with life-threatening illness. 
  • MDMA: Also known as Ecstacy, MDMA in therapeutic settings has shown a 76% success rate in treating PTSD.
  • Ketamine: Ketamine is a dissociative approved for treatment-resistant depression.
  • Ayahuasca: Ayahuasca is a plant hallucinogen that has been used in religious ceremonies in parts of South America for centuries. It has been explored to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction disorders.
  • Ibogaine: A plant hallucinogen from West Africa being studied to treat addiction, PTSD, and brain injury. 
  • LSD: Studied to treat major depressive disorder, alcoholism, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety with life-threatening illness.

Elaine Marshall is a functional medicine writer and author of Veterans and Psychedelic Therapy: A New Paradigm, releasing in 2023.