The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Veterans Leading the Charge

Psychedelic healing around Austin and beyond


Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

Jesse Gould had traveled from Tampa, Florida, to Iquitos, Peru, then up the Amazon by boat to this tiny settlement, a clearing beside the river in the heart of the jungle.

The sun had set. The air inside the maloca, an octagonal hut, was heavy and wet. Gould felt saturated by the jungle, its heat, its fecundity, the waves of white noise from its millions of insects.

Two dozen other travelers had joined Gould. They were arrayed in a circle around the walls of the maloca, sitting or reclining on mattresses. The healers lit candles. The ceremony began.

The healers cleansed the space. They blew clouds of smoke from mapachos, black Amazonian cigars, over the participants and throughout the hut. They blessed the ayahuasca, the bitter psychedelic medicine brewed from jungle vines and bark. They offered a prayer of welcome. Then, one by one, the pilgrims rose, walked to the center of the hut, and drank a shot glass of the sludgy, brown ayahuasca.


When it was his turn, Gould walked forward and took the glass from the maestro. He prayed into it as he had been instructed, speaking his intention, asking for relief from anxiety and depression and anger. He drank down the ayahuasca.

Gould returned to his spot by the wall. The healers blew out the candles.

Gould waited. He had never taken a psychedelic before. “I was completely nervous, apprehensive, thinking I was crazy,” he remembered. “It was like certain things in the military, like the day before Ranger school. Like, I don’t want to do this. But I also knew I had to do it. I knew I had to do it. I didn’t really know why.

“And then it starts coming on a little bit. You start feeling it. You start feeling an oddness, like a buzzing. And then for me – and I didn’t know this at the time – it tends to come on like a full-force bucking bronco. It came on and it was like taming a bronco. And I was unsuccessful at taming it.”


Becoming Jesse Gould

It had been over two years since Gould had returned from Afghanistan. He had signed on in 2010 as an Army Ranger – Mortar Platoon, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. During his three deployments, he stood near thousands of concussive blasts from guns that hurled mortars into the air. In 2014, he made it out of the Army in one piece and started a career in finance.

“On the outside, life was going well,” he said. “I was doing everything right. But it was very challenging internally. I was dealing with all the stuff I didn’t think I would ever have to deal with in terms of extreme anxiety, going into depression.”

Gould would work through the week and begin drinking. “I’d be at the end of the week on Friday, and it was just gray. I couldn’t even listen to music or turn on Netflix to distract me. I couldn’t do anything but stare at the walls or the ceiling. And so that’s where the alcohol came in – as a choice of either staying up and being an insomniac or drinking and passing out and at least enjoying that a little. And, you know, rinse and repeat the next day.”

Something was wrong but Gould didn’t know what. He began to speculate that he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury from his proximity to the explosions of the mortars – something that is common for soldiers who do this work. He knew some of his symptoms matched those caused by traumatic brain injury: insomnia, depression, rage, confusion, poor balance, unraveling memory.

Gould sought help from the Veterans Health Administration. It took them over two years but he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The doctors did not find a traumatic brain injury, or if they did they didn’t tell him. They recommended Gould take anti-anxiety meds and undergo counseling – the conventional treatment the VA offers for those suffering PTSD. The doctors added that unless he was on meds, Gould could only be approved for a limited number of counseling sessions.

Gould was reluctant to take the drugs. He had seen the downsides of the medications in the lives of his fellow veterans. “I’ve seen it save lives as well,” he said. “But I’ve also seen people where it has all sorts of bad side effects and they end up on all sorts of pills. So for me, it just didn’t seem like a logical next step. And also, it becomes almost this life sentence of having PTSD, where you’re just going to be on medication for the foreseeable future, without any sort of road outside of that. That didn’t seem like the reasonable option.”

So Gould self-medicated. And he began to endanger his personal safety. He would get drunk and sleep in his car. Or walk the streets of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city till dawn, inviting violence.

“I was engaging in risky behavior. Just putting myself in dangerous situations with a nihilistic sort of view. I wasn’t necessarily suicidal in my thought process, but I did put myself in situations where it was like I didn’t really care what happened to me.”


I Couldn’t Fucking Believe It

Justin LaPree had been a Marine for only a week when the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Eighteen months later he was racing toward Baghdad as an infantryman in the invasion of Iraq. He didn’t see a lot of shooting on that mission. But then he redeployed to Fallujah, the center of the bloodiest fighting of the war, where many soldiers, and far more Iraqi civilians, were killed.

“We were fighting individuals that blended in with the common person,” LaPree said. “The level of stress and alertness was vastly different. You don’t know who’s gonna pop out from behind a corner and try to kill you. You’re always looking behind your back. But it means your survival.”


Justin LaPree (Photo by Katherine Irwin)

LaPree had friends killed in Fallujah. He survived explosions from roadside IEDs. He returned home in 2005 fundamentally changed. “I had been a Catholic but I came home and I was straight up an atheist. I just lost faith in everything because I saw the far extreme of hatred. I was like, 'God does not exist. People have been lied to. There isn’t a heaven.’”

LaPree moved to New York City after his discharge. Like Gould, he found it impossible to transition seamlessly into civilian life. Unlike Gould, he accepted the help the VA was capable of providing. VA doctors diagnosed him with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury and put him on meds. “Eventually, I was on 13 different medications, to include OxyContin, which became an escape for me,” LaPree said. “Then I started using methamphetamine. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I didn’t want to have night terrors. I didn’t want to have flashbacks.”


LaPree became homeless for a time. Then, friends from the service who worked in the Austin Fire Department convinced him to move to Austin and become a fireman. He did and felt a sense of purpose again. But he was also exposed to more trauma, trauma that he felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about.

The unresolved trauma and the fog from the medications took a toll on LaPree’s personal relationships. His marriage fell apart. His access to his two kids was restricted. He began to lose hope. During a shift at the station on Veterans Day, 2018, he resolved to kill himself.

“I sat in my truck at the fire station and wrote final letters to my children – letters with love and explanations I thought they would one day need. I was an atheist but I prayed. I prayed for peace through death.

“And I took my 45. I put the barrel in my mouth. I took a deep breath. And I pulled the trigger. And I was still there. And I couldn’t fucking believe it.”


PTSD

Gould and LaPree’s struggles with PTSD are not unique. Studies show that 500,000 of the approximately 2 million U.S. veterans who served in the post-9/11 wars have suffered symptoms of PTSD. And it’s not just veterans. Research shows roughly one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives.

PTSD rewires your brain. It can’t be controlled through force of will. It causes depression, including treatment-resistant depression; anxiety; paranoia; social isolation; hypervigilance; and a host of physical problems like headaches and insomnia. It damages and destroys personal relationships. It leads to addiction – half of veterans who suffer from PTSD use drugs or alcohol to numb their pain.

It also leads to suicide. Estimates vary, but according to the VA, more than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide since the beginning of the post-9/11 wars. That’s 17 times more people than the 7,000 who died on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veteran suicides overall have averaged 6,000 a year, or 16 a day, over the last two decades – and that’s a conservative number, as it doesn’t include possible suicides through overdose. Veteran suicide is so high that it is the second leading cause of death for former soldiers like Jesse Gould and Justin LaPree, who are younger than 45 years of age.

For those who don’t kill themselves, PTSD is often a life sentence. About 271,000 Vietnam vets still have PTSD, 50 years after the end of that war. Traditional treatment programs for PTSD, which combine medication and therapy, have poor rates of completion and success. Studies show different figures, but traditional therapy fails to help between 40% and 90% of those suffering. Many soldiers forgo treatment because of the VA’s bureaucracy and a lack of faith in its programs. One study found that less than half of veterans needing mental health care wind up getting any at all.



Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

A Hand That Pulled Me Through

Gould first heard about using ayahuasca to treat PTSD on a podcast in 2015. He was skeptical.

“I never had done a psychedelic, never smoked pot, never had interest in drugs,” he said. “I knew I had my vices with alcohol and didn’t see the need to have anything else to contend with. And I did kind of view it as drug use.”

But Gould’s binge drinking was beginning to affect his work. He sensed that he was on the verge of collapse. So he studied the scant data available on psychedelic therapy and found the retreat in the Amazon jungle. Feeling there was nothing in his life worth saving, he sold or gave away his possessions and bought a one-way ticket to Peru. He made his way to the center, where, over the course of a week, he ingested ayahuasca in four all-night ceremonies.

“Ayahuasca is one of the more powerful psychedelics out there and not having any sort of experience with it, and having a strong need for control and hardheadedness, the first ceremony was just everything, all at once,” Gould said. “It was kind of like being blasted out, with all the trauma coming up. And what psychedelics do is they make you extra sensitive to your emotions and then bring those up. So you’re essentially, oftentimes, surrounded by the traumas. For me, it was like being in a ball of anxiety and discomfort in every imaginable way.


“I’ve been through some pretty tough stuff in my life but this one made me want to cry like a child. It’s beyond words in a lot of ways. It was very challenging but it gave me respect for it. It wasn’t this happy-go-lucky psychedelic experience that they warned us about as kids.

“Then the second one, it was that with the dial turned up 10 times. There weren’t any tricks that I could use to pass the time – it just took my perception of that away and put me to the edge, where I had to deal with my anxiety. And it scared me because I felt like it was pushing the edge of my sanity. That wasn’t actually true, but I needed to confront that fear.

“And then the third ceremony started off just as challenging as the last. I was getting beat up psychologically and I was like, 'I don’t know if I can handle much more.’ But then when I was just beaten down – and it was almost like there was a visual of it – there was like a hand that pulled me through and instantly put me into this serene, quiet, peaceful spot. Just complete calmness.

“I felt night and day different afterwards. I was like, 'Oh, this is how a brain that’s not trying to kill me should feel, a brain that’s not misfiring.’ So then, after that, I kind of had the same experience as anybody else the fourth time. I had left everything behind. I was just kind of giving myself space to figure out – was I imagining this? What was lasting? What remained?

“It gave me different insights on my life and really seemed to reduce the anxiety, reduce the depression, reduce the hypervigilance. And it also did seem, from a physiological standpoint, to help reset my brain from the traumatic brain injuries.”



Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The Mushrooms and the Mask

After LaPree’s suicide attempt he took a month off from the fire department. Sitting around the apartment he had rented after separating from his wife, he read a just-released book by Michael Pollan – How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. He read some of the studies described in the book from Johns Hopkins University, the leading psychedelic research center in the States, demonstrating the effectiveness of psychedelics for depression and anxiety.

LaPree didn’t have the money to travel to Peru. So he found mushrooms through a friend, downloaded a playlist used by researchers at Johns Hopkins, bought a sleep mask, and, as he put it, changed his life.

LaPree took three and a half grams of psilocybin mushrooms, what is sometimes called a “heroic dose,” on that first trip. “I had visions of different experiences in Iraq that I had forgotten about,” he said. “I cried for the first time. I didn’t cry, I had never cried, I was completely shut off from emotion. And you don’t feel safe to express your emotions. You don’t know how to express your emotions. This goes back to my childhood where I was told not to cry. So it felt amazing to just release, to let go.”

LaPree had three revelations that night. “The first was that I loved myself, that I was proud of myself for the challenges that I’ve overcome. And that’s the thing that I was missing at the time.

“It was a really beautiful, kind of warm feeling. My whole body was buzzing. And I just felt a connectedness with everything, with the universe, with everybody. And it was really profound, because I felt very alone leading up to this. So that was the second revelation.

“And then the third was I didn’t want to die. That feeling had been completely erased. And since that first time, it has never returned.”

After the experience, LaPree’s symptoms from the traumatic brain injury gradually decreased. “My memory came back, my balance came back, I didn’t have a speech impediment anymore. And since then, I’ve been off of all my medications. I haven’t taken a pharmaceutical since I tapered off in late 2018.”


The Psychedelic Renaissance

Scientists have been aware of the potential benefits of psychedelics since the 1950s, when they first began to be studied. The new substances were soon popularized by Timothy Leary, the Beatles, and other counterculture figures, however, and swept into the national hysteria that became the War on Drugs. In 1970, psychedelics were deemed as dangerous as heroin and cocaine and designated Schedule 1 drugs, substances with no safe medical use. Psychedelic research ended in the United States.

That began to change when the Food and Drug Administration authorized a small study in the mid-1990s on MDMA, a stimulant and mild psychedelic. Other trials on MDMA followed. Some date what is now called the Psychedelic Renaissance to 2006, when a pharmacologist named Roland Griffiths published a study with a lucid title: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

Griffiths’ study found that 80 percent of those who received a dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, described the resulting experience as one of the most meaningful of their lives, right up there with their marriages and the births of their children. Griffiths had been an expert on opiates and stimulants before but now he swung his attention to psychedelics and spent the rest of his life working with them. In 2016, he co-authored another highly influential study demonstrating that one large dose of psilocybin could substantially lower depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.

The Psychedelic Renaissance went mainstream in 2018 with the publication of Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, which included chapters on Griffiths and on veterans seeking psychedelic therapy in foreign countries. That same year, the FDA designated MDMA a “breakthrough therapy” for PTSD – meaning that it might be more effective than conventional treatment. This opened the door to more research.

By this point, hundreds of veterans were traveling to Latin America each year for treatment. Returning home, they became effective messengers for the legalization of psychedelics in their own country, especially among conservatives, who had demonized the drugs for generations. Vets led campaigns in Oregon, California, Colorado, and elsewhere, successfully pushing for the decriminalization of psilocybin and for more research.

Vets were also active in Texas, which has the largest veteran population in the country. In 2021, Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL whose PTSD had led to an opiate addiction, helped persuade former Gov. Rick Perry and other anti-drug Republicans to join Democrats in passing HB 1802, a bill promoting psilocybin research. On the federal level, former Navy SEALs and Texas U.S. Reps. Morgan Luttrell – Marcus’ brother – and Dan Crenshaw helped pass a provision directing the Defense Department to fund psychedelic research on active-duty service members.

Today, psychedelic research is advancing at an unprecedented clip. The VA is researching psychedelics in its clinics for the first time since the 1960s, looking into the use of MDMA for PTSD and psilocybin for meth addiction. Meanwhile, findings from larger studies are reinforcing results from earlier research. In 2022, the largest study yet on the use of psilocybin determined that one large dose helped ease treatment-resistant depression. In 2023, the largest MDMA study to date found the drug reduced symptoms of PTSD.


Heroic Hearts

Jesse Gould spent months ruminating on his psychedelic experience after returning to the States. Everything felt different now. But, looking at the lives of his friends from the Army, he saw nothing had changed for them.

“By then, I had already lost double-digit friends to suicide,” Gould said. “It was kind of this monthly, if not weekly, thing where I’d hear about another one. And I felt very fortunate that I had stumbled onto this. So it became a sort of obligation of – you have this ability to actually make something from this. You don’t have to do it but you have that ability. So that became the calling card for starting the nonprofit.”


Jesse Gould (Courtesy of Gould)

Gould began sharing his story with vets he knew and cold-calling those he didn’t. He used his personal funds to put a website together and developed a protocol vets could use to prepare for their own psychedelic experiences. In April of 2017, he officially started the Heroic Hearts Project, the first veteran-led program sponsoring psychedelic therapy for former soldiers.

Heroic Hearts provides the therapy free of charge and transports vets and their spouses to its chosen healing centers in countries where the ceremonies are legal, like Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, and Costa Rica. Participants agree to a 12-week program with three phases. The first is preparation: Vets meet in private and group sessions with a coach to help set goals and get questions answered. The second is the treatment itself: They participate in one to five traditional psychedelic ceremonies with ayahuasca or psilocybin under the supervision of coaches and native healers. The third phase is integration: They meet again in private and group therapy for at least four weeks to process what they’ve experienced and plan for the future.

In seven years, HHP has helped over 1,000 veterans and veterans’ spouses. Still, Gould is disappointed he hasn’t been able to help more and angry that vets have to leave their own country to find treatment.

“Just our group’s existence itself is a testament that the way we’re doing things in our country is not working,” he said. “And it’s a tragedy that we have to be dragging politicians and the VA to even acknowledge that. It’s an embarrassment that, just from our group, over 1,000 veterans have had to go elsewhere for lifesaving care. And there’s tens of thousands more that are knocking on our door trying to get there.”

To hasten the legalization of treatment, HHP coordinates with major universities to provide subjects for studies of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other combat-related issues. One of its partners is UT Dell Medical’s Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy – the first psychedelic research center in Texas.

The Center for Psychedelic Research and Therapy was co-founded in late 2021 by Greg Fonzo, a clinical psychologist who has worked with veterans his entire career, assessing depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Fonzo studies neurocircuitry and plasticity in the brain, especially how emotions are processed and regulated, with the goal of identifying new treatments for people suffering mental illness. Like many in his field, he is intrigued by the potential of psychedelics to provide these new treatments.

Fonzo has collaborated with Gould on three studies examining the effects of different psychedelics on grief and PTSD in vets and their spouses. The Heroic Hearts Project found 30 participants for each study, coordinated their treatment, and brought UT researchers into the process to assess the outcomes. Fonzo’s team is already examining data from two of the studies.

“For the folks we’ve seen come back from those two studies so far, the improvements are profound,” Fonzo told us. “I’ve talked to my research assistants, who do a lot of the clinical assessments, and they say it’s almost like night and day – the person beforehand versus the person afterwards is almost completely different. They seem much more calm, much, much happier, much more at peace. And the clinical measures seem to also support that.”

Fonzo is currently in the recruitment phase for more studies to evaluate the use of psilocybin for anorexia and treatment-resistant depression here in Austin, at Dell Medical. Neuroscientist Manoj Doss, a prolific researcher who co-authored many of the studies associated with Roland Griffiths, is a central figure in the work. Doss told us that psychedelic research is entering a third wave. The first wave, in the 1960s, studied the safety of substances. The second wave, still underway, has examined their clinical uses. The third wave, Doss said, will look at whether the substances enhance problem-solving, creativity, and other cognitive processes.

There’s already a great deal of anecdotal evidence that psychedelic reveries provide creative insights in much the same way as dreams. Bruce Damer, a world-renowned astrobiologist, recently revealed that psychedelics helped him formulate his influential new theory on the origin of life on Earth. Damer has co-founded the organization MINDS – Multidisciplinary Investigation Into Novel Discoveries and Solutions – to promote psychedelic-assisted innovation.

Doss told us that MINDS is in discussions with the center to fund research expanding on a 1966 study into the use of psychedelics to enhance creativity, the last such research before drug prohibition. The study in question brought together 27 professionals who took mescaline and went on to produce breakthroughs in mathematics, architecture, and microchip design.

Doss said that neuroscientists don’t understand how, or if, psychedelics enhance cognitive processes like creativity. But in his previous research he identified one small area where they might.

“There’s some evidence that in patients with depression, after you treat them, a week later you’ll see some cognitive benefits,” Doss said. “Before I left Hopkins I actually found some evidence of the very minute cognitive process that might get enhanced. So maybe we should try to pursue that to see if we can now find out what gets enhanced. Can we harness this to use for something like creative problem-solving or the treatment of depression? It’s too early still to say, but hopefully we’re gonna get that funding and be able to pursue this.”



Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

Illuminating Hearts

Justin LaPree agrees that veterans deserve access to psychedelic treatment in their own country.

“I believe that it’s our birthright to have access to these medicines,” LaPree said. “They should have never been taken away from us in the first place. And we can’t wait around for the government to help us. That takes years and years. The research is super important – because the research is what’s going to take down the controlled substances classification for these medicines and make them accessible. But I’m on the spiritual side of things. And I do believe there is a huge spiritual aspect to these medicines.”

In 2022, LaPree founded the nonprofit now known as the Illuminating Co., which includes a sanctuary, an entheogenic church in Dripping Springs, protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The Illuminating Co. provides psychedelic treatment to vets, their spouses, and first responders, free of charge. LaPree created it as a multi-sacrament sanctuary, meaning that those seeking treatment have access to mushrooms, MDMA, toad secretions, and ayahuasca. The medicines are administered in a ceremonial setting with protocol similar to the ones employed by Gould and other providers – preparation, guided treatment, integration.

UT’s Greg Fonzo sits on the board of advisors of the Illuminating Co. and will be collaborating with the group in future research. “He had something that I didn’t have,” LaPree said. “I had anecdotal stories. What I didn’t know is what is actually happening in a person’s body, in a person’s mind, when they take these medicines. So it was great to be able to speak to him about how this actually works, because I can’t step into a room of war-hardened veterans and first responders with a bunch of beads and crystals and be like, 'Hey guys, just trust me.’”


Justin LaPree (Photo by Katherine Irwin)

To date, LaPree has served 396 vets and first responders. But he recently decided he no longer wanted to limit the sacraments to those groups. So during SXSW he rebranded his operation and added another sanctuary. His veteran and first responder program is called Illuminating Heroes. The new civilian program is called Illuminating Hearts.

Kacee Johnson, a local real estate investor, was one of the first to be treated in LaPree’s civilian sanctuary. He heard about it by chance, two months before its launch, as he was going through a tough breakup. “I’ve been an alcoholic my whole life and have gone in and out of rehab,” Johnson said. “At the point that I met Justin, I was back to drinking every day, super depressed, and just in a really bad place.”

Johnson spent four days at LaPree’s sanctuary in April, participating in two psychedelic ceremonies. The first, with psilocybin and MDMA, was helpful. But the second, with 5-meO-DMT, a powerful psychedelic derived from the Bufo alvarius toad, was something else altogether.

“I will forever say that there was my life before that moment, and there’s my life after that moment,” Johnson said. “I saw God and God showed me something that I’ve been missing my whole life, which was what it felt like to love myself. And, you know, if I had a therapist tell me, 'Hey, you don’t love yourself,’ I would be like, 'Screw you. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I love myself.’ But I was at the feet of God and he showed me what it felt like to love myself. So it’s been incredible. I’ve quit drinking. I’ve had no desire to drink. My depression is completely gone.”

LaPree acted as a guide on Johnson’s psychedelic journey, as he frequently does at the sanctuaries. He continues to use the sacraments himself. He took ayahuasca for the first time in mid-June. Speaking with him, you get a sense of the wonder he feels in his new role in the world and his gratitude that, somehow, the gun that he always kept loaded was empty on Veterans Day in 2018, when he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

“I’m grateful for whoever unloaded my weapon,” LaPree said. “Without that, I wouldn’t have ever experienced love – because I found love after that, what love actually meant, what it meant to give love. I wouldn’t have experienced happiness, the true happiness which I have now experienced. And I would have robbed my children of all of those experiences as well.

“The insights I get from these medicines are like little gifts, gifts that I wasn’t open to receiving when I was spiraling out. Now, I have a different perspective. And this is just my belief, but I don’t believe that our souls end when we die. I don’t believe there is a start and a finish. And I will work with these medicines for the rest of my life, to continue to learn more about what we’re doing here. What does it mean to be human? Where do we come from? All these crazy life questions that we’re still trying to find the answers to.”

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