Finding healing after the military with plant medicine: Heroic Hearts Project
Retreat Guru has partnered up with an organization who is changing the lives of military veterans. The Heroic Hearts Project’s mission statement is a powerful one: to provide hope and healing to military veterans that have been left hopeless by the current Veteran Affairs system. We seek to spread awareness in the veteran community of powerful plant-based therapies like ayahuasca and end the excessive dependence on powerful medications to treat mental traumas.
We had the opportunity to ask the nonprofit a few questions. We hope this leaves you just as hopeful as it did us.
What is the heart behind Heroic Hearts? Where did the inspiration come from to set up this foundation?
The inspiration for the name Heroic Hearts comes from the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
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.
One of the major themes of this poem, is the difficulty soldiers face in returning home. They’re changed by their experiences and the prospect of returning to a normal life can be intimidating. We at Heroic Hearts Project are helping soldiers return back home. Psychedelic therapy cannot only heal mental traumas which keep them mentally stuck on the battlefield, but also it serves as a ritualistic passage from soldier to civilian life that can help many with this difficult transition.
I was inspired to set up this foundation after attending an Ayahuasca retreat myself. I was struggling with my own mental issues after leaving the military and all the options offered by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) were of no help. After my first Ayahuasca ceremony, two things were immediately clear: this experience, unquestionably, had therapeutic value.
Veterans who have been struggling like me, should at the very least know this is an option.
From what you’ve seen, how do you feel these plant medicine experiences are helping veterans heal from PTSD and other trauma-related issues? What other approaches to healing have you explored or considered?
We have seen – across the board – positive results, and we are always working to improve our program. Psychedelic therapies seem to work well on two levels. One level is similar to something called Prolonged Exposure Therapy, where the hallucinogenic effects allow the individual to face a trauma and potentially move past it. The other level, which initial studies show is that psychedelics may heal the brain physically.
From the veterans we have sent, all have experienced, at the very least, some level of positive effect. The scale of this effect has varied from allowing the veteran to better understand the healing path they will need to pursue to get better on one end, to a complete life-transforming experience on the opposite end. I believe that by better understanding how psychedelics interact with certain traumas and personality types, and by improving our integration program, we will be able to bring many more to the life-transforming side of the scale.
I believe at some point in the future psychedelics will play an important part in a larger treatment program. There are many new treatment options that could work well with a plant medicine program. Some examples being hyperbaric oxygen, EMDR and hormone replacement, just to name a few.
How do you discern which plant medicine centers HH works with? Are there particular qualities or values that you look for in a center and/or facilitator? How is searching for a plant medicine center for veterans different than searching for a center more generally?
When possible, someone from our team checks out each center and program in person. If this is not an option, our team will set up a conference call with the center’s owner and some of the staff. Above all else, we really look at the center’s intention and the quality of their programs. We only want to work with centers that are primarily focused on the therapy side of this medicine and have good integration programs that follow up with guests. As plant medicines are becoming more popular, we are seeing more retreats that have no intake or application process and are only concerned with your credit card number.
We also will only work with centers that maintain traditions that are respectful to indigenous customs and who source their medicine sustainably. When we send larger groups of veterans, we also have to ensure that the facility and shaman are comfortable with the prospect. A group with very intense trauma often requires a little more thought and preparation. Our criteria shouldn’t be much different from anybody else’s search criteria; due diligence is always important. A responsible retreat can safely work with all types of trauma. In fact, we often send groups as small as 2-3 individuals to experience plant medicine at retreats open to the public. This has helped many realize that they’re not alone in their trauma and that many people from different walks of life have their own struggles to contend with.
What do you believe is the greatest obstacle to true healing? And what one tool have you found most helpful in overcoming that obstacle?
The greatest obstacle to true healing is the Self. One of the reasons plant medicines are proving to be so successful is because they can break down the mental barriers we all put up. Our ego gets in the way because we don’t want to admit our weaknesses or the fact that we can always improve. Ayahuasca can be especially difficult and lead individuals to face some hard truths. If a person is not truly ready to fight for their healing, then they’ll most likely just walk away when things get tough.
When I interview potential veteran candidates, one of the main things I look for is their willingness to work for their healing. As many have pointed out, Ayahuasca and other plant medicines are not magic pills that will instantly cure all of your problems. They can open doors, but it’s on the individual to walk through them. The more work someone is willing to put in before and after the actual experience, the more they will get out of it. I don’t know if there’s one tool for this, it depends on the individual. I think everyone pursuing this therapy really needs to understand their reason for needing to heal. It may seem obvious, but without a real reason it is too easy to walk away. For many vets that I’ve sent, their reason was to not lose their family, for me it was to survive.
What is your approach to reaching veterans suffering from PTSD that are previously unfamiliar with Amazonian plant medicine and Ayahuasca in particular? How do you reach them or how can they find you?
Unfortunately, the mental health crisis in the veteran community is so severe I don’t have to seek out candidates. On a weekly basis, numerous veterans reach out to us seeking help. The majority of these, have tried everything the VA had to offer with little success. Currently, there are tens of thousands of veterans whose lives are completely consumed by mental trauma and the current “acceptable” treatment options are not working.
For those that are interested but not particularly familiar, I try to be as straight forward as possible. I let them know the available research and caution against magic pill thinking. We never push anyone into this type of therapy, it has to be their informed decision.
If veterans from any country are interested in learning more about our program, they can head to HeroicHeartsProject.org and go to the Veteran Sign Up tab where they can read about our program and fill out our application. When we’re able, we also provide financial scholarships for those in need.
After serving as an Army Ranger with multiple deployments to Afghanistan, Jesse Gould, like thousands of other veterans, struggled with the transition into civilian life. When western therapy options failed, Jesse had to go off the beaten path in order to take healing into his own hands. Heroic Hearts Project was founded in March of 2017 after a life-affirming experience at an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. He instantly saw the healing potential of the brew and knew that it could be a powerful tool in healing the mental struggles of his fellow veterans. Jesse has since devoted himself to advocating psychedelic therapy to help heal the veteran community. Visit the Heroic Heart Project’s Retreat Guru page to learn more or view their upcoming events at La Medicina.