As the sun started to rise, I woke up covered in sand and bug bites, hungover, and overflowing with anxiety; I had spent the night on the beach. It was the morning after Thanksgiving and my whole family was in town. The dinner had gone well, fueled by good friends and family, old stories, and, of course, a lot of alcohol. That night, however, provoked a flare-up of anxiety supported by the already stressful family reunion and the disinhibitions of alcohol. At that point, I had been out of the Army for two years and each day since, a dark cloud that lingered since my military departure was progressively harder to ignore. Towards the end of that Thanksgiving night, an immense loneliness hit me; a complete sense of disconnection and isolation. And so I walked to the beach, alone, with a feeling that I didn’t deserve the comforts of a warm bed or shelter.
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened: waking up to discover I had chosen to sleep in the streets, directionless midnight walks through unknown neighborhoods—lots of pointless risky behavior. But this, was the first time my family could see first-hand that I was deeply struggling. I could tell they were concerned when I came walking into my mom’s house in the early morning. Since my time as an Army Ranger, my parents had worried about my alcohol consumption. Drinking was just as much a part of Ranger life as combat—work hard, play hard. It is difficult for many to switch off this behavior post-military. As the dark cloud of my mental traumas started to grow, so did my self-medication with alcohol. The only way to sit at a crowded and noisy bar without becoming a ball of anxiety was to have a few drinks. The only way to distract from the meaninglessness of a sixty hour work week at a corporate job was to have a refrigerator always stocked with beer; post-work-beer, end-of-the-week-beer, and, for far too many mornings, the hangover-remedy-beer.
It’s easy for many to write this off as just a drinking problem or addiction. But what many may never understand is that for veterans like myself, this was a matter of survival. The switch was stuck on survival mode. If alcohol could help me continue the mission, then so be it. At that point in my life, I saw no other option. To manage anxiety while living a “normal life,” alcohol was the answer. I was trapped and had no idea how to escape. But deep inside of me, there has always been a strong intuition that has guided me in times of chaos and prevented me from letting behaviors get past a point of no return. In that way, I’m one of the lucky ones.
In the fall of 2016, this gut feeling told me that something major needed to change. I listened. Around this same time, I had heard about indigenous ceremonies in South America using a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca. At first, I listened to descriptions of ayahuasca with skepticism. Psychedelics had never been of any interest to me. I viewed them as another form of escape and I already had my vices. But curiosity took hold and I continued to research these ceremonies. They seemed different from the narratives I usually associated with drug use: people blasted out of their mind searching for the next high. Ayahuasca had culture and a rich tradition—it was used for healing and not for the high. This distinction was enough. The idea was able to sneak past my barriers and plant itself in my mind as a possibility.
A plan was forming without me consciously knowing it.
By the time of that embarrassing Thanksgiving, I was already set on leaving my job and giving the ayahuasca retreat a chance. I knew that it was only a matter of time before my unhealthy habits affected my life in an irreversible way. My recent performance on the beach only reinforced my decision. Something was off, and I needed to find a way to heal myself. My family knew about my plans to travel to Peru, but I left them in the dark about my intention of seeking out this powerful psychedelic. I wanted this experience to be completely my own, without the expectations or worries of others.
I arrived in Peru a week before the start of the retreat. I used that time to decompress and get in the right mindset. There was still a part of me that questioned the radical decision I was making: leaving my job, leaving my life, a journey to a foreign jungle to drink a powerful psychedelic. But, when I arrived in Peru, I felt a relief I hadn’t felt in years. There is something about traveling and diving into new cultures that is always refreshing. I was finally able to view the bubble that I had formed around my life in Tampa—a life in which I was just pretending, trying to force a life that I thought I was supposed to live.
The ceremony day arrived. It felt like the first morning of Ranger School, which is often viewed as one of the most difficult schools in the military. I was nervous. I felt a familiar dread, one I had felt many times before when I was on the cusp of something I knew would be difficult and big. Just like entering a dark cave, I arrived at the point of no return, filled with anxiety and fear of the unknown.
Ayahuasca was my life’s next major challenge.
The first ceremony was demanding. For years, it had felt like my mind was not a cohesive unit—more like a nation enduring a civil war. The first ceremony dropped me in the middle of this inner conflict, complete with all the chaos and confusion of a real war. The actual ceremony lasted about four hours, but my journey was detached from time. I was embodied in this ever-present conflict that my mind had always known. I emerged from that night not knowing what had just happened, but I knew it was nothing remotely close to my expectations. The power of the experience gained my respect.
To describe the individual ceremonies is impossible. I experienced all the sights often associated with a psychedelic trip: the colors, the geometric patterns, the hallucinations. But words always fall short in any description. I came to see that that was the point: the psychedelic process is about moving past the comfort of words and simply trusting the experience. We often try to understand our emotions through language, but words can only touch the surface. I started to understand that the only way to understand emotions is to feel them—to dive into the feeling, this is the psychedelic process. As a person who always relied on logic and reason, this was an entirely new frontier. A part of my mind had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this new truth. The logic part of my brain had to relinquish control.
The rest of the week in Peru proceeded with a lot of ups and downs, challenges and breakthroughs. I knew, as hard as some of the journeys were, it was all a necessary part of the process. During that week, I was never fully aware of the extent of the transition taking place inside my own head, but I could always sense there was something profound in this process. During that week I realized I had been holding on to a false narrative. Like many others that I had served with, I continued to hold on to the concept that I was a Ranger when I left the military, but this sense of self became altered more and more along the way. Instead of tuning in and tapping into my internal strength, I consistently exposed myself to dangerous situations to prove I was invincible and could handle anything. Instead of carefully planning certain aspects of my life, I would jump impetuously into something thinking I could figure it out along the way. Towards the end of my week with ayahuasca, I was just starting to remember what it meant to be a warrior. It is not showing superficial outward strength by puffing one’s chest or carelessly jumping into risky situations. It is about something much deeper—an internal force that compels individuals to sacrifice for something greater than themselves and that drives them forward even when faced with the most challenging obstacles. Coming to terms with my own self-deception and acknowledging my weaknesses were the first steps towards reclaiming my strength.
After my time in Peru, the full effects of my healing experience continued to unfold over many months. To this day I continue to discover things that can be tied to my ayahuasca experiences. Right away, I could sense some of the shift, and this newfound knowledge evolved into an obligation. I knew that what I experienced could help other veterans like me. I knew the knowledge deserved to be spread.
In the weeks following my retreat, these lines repeated in my mind.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The nonprofit foundation, Heroic Hearts Project, was born from this life-saving journey into the Peruvinan jungle. The name ‘heroic hearts’ being inspired by the famous odyssey celebrated in the poem Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson. I felt a timeless string connecting generations of warriors through this poetic narrative of Ulysses’ struggle to return to his family. The universal warriors’ story of having to come to terms with trauma, age, fatigue, and the foreignness of the place that used to be called home. There is strength in this story for veterans—a solidarity in knowing they are not alone in both struggles and in spirit. One equal temper of heroic hearts.
These lines helped me realize that I still contain the strength and spirit I once embodied as a Ranger. These forces were ever present, but they needed to connect to a new purpose. My war was over, but many battles remained. I knew from many saddening experiences, how limited the mental health options were in the United States. Too many of my friends died by their own hand and many more were actively destroying their lives. The path ahead grew in front of me. Ayahuasca and other psychedelics were the vessels by which many of these warriors could finally find peace and navigate their way home.
Heroic Hearts Project is now working with veterans across four nations, in addition to being partnered with two major universities. The mission has always been simple: to connect military veterans to effective psychedelic treatments. Our first-of-its-kind veteran program provides every veteran with financial support, well-researched psychedelic treatment protocols, and a comprehensive program of integration, coaching, and support. Ayahuasca saved my life, and I have complete confidence that psychedelics will save many more. The Army Ranger motto is “Rangers lead the way!” and the Heroic Hearts Project will do everything in its power to continue leading the way in this mission.