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The purple politics of veterans and psychedelics: 5 Questions for Amber Capone, co-founder of VETS
Capone discusses VETS, an organization that connects Special Operations veterans with psychedelic retreats and resources
Amber first met Marcus Capone during her senior year of high school. Her father was the football coach at Southern Illinois University, and Marcus played on his team. The two hit it off instantly, and Amber decided to attend Southern Illinois as well. After two years together, Marcus, who was then finishing his senior year, decided he wanted to join the Navy SEALs. Amber never imagined being with someone in the military, but after she learned she was pregnant with their son, the two got married. Marcus enlisted and finished his training in October 2001, weeks after 9/11.
Twelve years later, Marcus returned to civilian life after serving seven tours at SEAL Team 10 and SEAL Team 6, the U.S.’s counterterrorism unit. Amber could see that he was struggling, and she feared she’d lose him to suicide. Marcus tried many treatments and medications, but none seemed to help. A friend told Amber about psychedelic therapy, but Marcus was skeptical; he’d never done drugs. Then, in 2017, he relented; he went to Mexico for a weekend ibogaine retreat.
When Marcus returned, Amber was nervous — she didn’t know what to expect. What she saw surprised her; she said Marcus was back to being the man she’d met all those years ago, the one she fell in love with. They weren’t sure how long the effects of treatment might last, and decided to wait at least a year before discussing their experience publicly. Then in late 2018, almost a year after Marcus had his first psychedelic experience, one of their veteran friends died by suicide. The two decided they needed to speak about Marcus’s experiences, and together they founded an organization called VETS to connect Special Operations veterans with psychedelic retreats and resources. The Microdose spoke with Amber Capone about VETS’ work.
A lot of the recent psychedelic legislation being introduced in states centers around treatment for veterans. Why do you think that is?
There's such a need for support in the veteran community, and there’s a unique unity around that. Everyone is willing to rally around veterans which creates a beautiful purple space, where there's no political party. There's no judgment or argument, just unification. And there's such a trust that exists within the veteran community. We know the struggle, and we'll go the distance in making sure that fellow veterans, friends and comrades don't have to go through the struggle. If you know that pain, you want to alleviate it in others.
What kinds of resources does VETS offer?
We provide funding for Special Operations veterans to leave the U.S. in search of psychedelic therapy. So far, we’ve been able to provide funding for close to 700 individuals. We also provide all the supplemental pre- and post-support through a team of coaches, who are licensed therapists and trained in psychedelic integration.
There’s a lot of buzz in veterans circles about psychedelics — the need is so great, and the trust in the community is so deep, and the therapy seems efficacious. But it’s created a maelstrom of interest, a fervor for access. I’m afraid this could backfire if people are going into these experiences unsupported. We’re being very cognisant of our messaging and highlighting the need for proper sourcing and dosing, and considerations for set and setting, prep, and integration support. These medicines are so powerful and so unlike anything most people have experienced; we wouldn’t want it to cause more harm than good.
We’re also collecting data on outcomes, so we can advocate broadly for changes to veteran healthcare, including access to psychedelics in the U.S. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to capture that data from everyone who has received psychedelic therapy — there are funding constraints. But we have worked on a study on ibogaine outcomes with Stanford, and the preliminary data looks incredible. We’ve also worked with researchers at Ohio State, and have an ongoing data collection project with them.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Beyond the retreats, what does on-going treatment look like?
I think we should normalize the fact that someone might need to incorporate this into their life for the rest of their life. Marcus was once taking 10 prescriptions every day; now he goes for a psychedelic reset once a year. Going once a year or biannually means he’s truly living instead of numbing out and merely surviving — he’s thriving now. The frequency for everyone is different; that’s not for us to decide, but we certainly want to normalize that it’s not necessarily a single experience.
Meditation is our number one recommendation following a psychedelic journey. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but meditation seems to have a positive impact, so we are helping vets learn those skills. We also want to support spouses and their families; we encourage them to think of new ways to connect and create new habits together.
In palliative care circles, there’s been discussion about supporting spouses or primary caregivers of people with severe illness. It sounds like supporting spouses and families is part of a similar effort to “support the support” — what programming does VETS have around that?
We have specific programming for spouses — the biggest thing is funding for spouses of veterans to also seek psychedelic therapy. We’ve supported a few couples that have chosen to go to retreats together, as well as some spouses who have gone on retreats set up specifically for spouses. Not all spouses are called to the medicine, though, so for them, we offer group integration calls on Zoom. Additionally, we offer yoga classes and other workshops for spouses.
We also have a call for couples who are facing challenges, and a couples-specific group on our community forum, which is basically like Facebook for vets.
We don’t have anything for children at the moment, although we have thought about doing some sort of support group for adult children who are aware of their parent’s choice to pursue this route.
What role has VETS had in psychedelic related legislation and what does that kind of political organizing look like in the future?
We were instrumental in the passage of HB 1802 in Texas — we testified and built a coalition of support across branches of service alongside former Republican Texas governor Rick Perry. We’ve testified in a few other states as well, but we’re struggling to keep up with the demand because legislative work is so time consuming. It’s challenging to work at both the state and federal level, but we know we can make an impact with the right strategy, which we’re actively developing for 2023. We’re planning to be on the hill a lot, and we’re consulting with military leaders and lawmakers. We’ve got a real solid team of advisors, and we’re planning to get someone in a policy director position for next year.
We also hope to expand globally. We’re contacted regularly by veterans and leaders around the globe about how to set something like VETS up in their country. So many veterans are struggling and the care for them is not sufficient. We would like to be in one to five additional countries over the next year or two.
In the U.S., I think where we have the most value is converting conservatives from believing that what happened in the 1960s was the “be all end all” of psychedelics. Putting a voice and face to these stories and humanizing the message — of who psychedelics can help — can bring conservatives to the table. I think it's beautiful that we have a mission that so many people can unite around; it’s truly bipartisan.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.