In 2017, Marcus Capone was in a dark place.
After retiring from the U.S. Navy SEALs in 2013, Capone was struggling to assimilate into civilian life.
“When I medically retired, things started to unravel at home,” Capone tells Psychedelic Medical News. “I went into a deep depression and isolated myself.”
Capone enlisted in 2000 and started Navy SEALs training in 2001. He completed his training shortly after 9/11, and was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2005.
“Nothing could have prepared us for the hardships that would follow that tragedy over the next 20 years, but I was honored to serve and loved my job,” he said, alluding to the impact of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. presence in Afghanistan that spanned roughly two decades.
As a breacher, a big part of his job in the SEALS was building and deploying explosives. While Capone says he loved the action – the “impact” and explosions – it took its toll on him, physically and mentally.
“I don’t think you think about down the road what that potentially can do to you,” Capone says.
A few years before he retired, a colleague suggested that Capone visit with a psychologist. In 2010, Capone started taking a prescription antidepressant – the first in what felt like a series of “countless prescriptions.” First an antidepressant, then another. Then a focus medication. Then a sleep medication.
Treating each bout of symptoms with more and more meds was Western medicine’s approach to helping Capone. The trouble was, it wasn’t helping.
“I couldn’t even count the number of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists that I sat down with for the next almost 10 years, but nothing was getting better,” Capone says. “I was getting diagnosed, but I really wasn’t getting, in my opinion, the treatment that I personally needed.”
Echoes of War
When Capone was medically retired from the Navy SEALs in 2013, he and his wife, Amber, assumed that life would return to normal. Sadly, those years were anything but normal for the Capone family.
Marcus says he was experiencing cognitive impairment, headaches, insomnia, acute depression and anxiety. To cope, he was drinking to excess.
Amber was struggling too. The man who returned home from combat in 2013 bore little resemblance to the man she had adored since they were college sweethearts.
“He was depressed. He was anxious. He was not sleeping,” she recalls. “He would fly off the handle – you couldn’t say anything to him. He was forgetting everything.”
Marcus had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Amber had a feeling there was more to it than that.
After learning about the effects of blast waves and concussive and subconcussive brain injuries, a clearer picture emerged. Eventually, they determined that Marcus’s military career as an explosives expert – combined with his prior years of playing football from a young age – had left him with the invisible wounds of traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition that has significant overlap with PTSD, and often is misdiagnosed.
Unfortunately, mainstream medical treatments weren’t panning out.
“I started getting him into brain clinics,” Amber recalls, “and if anything, they were making him more frustrated.”
In 2017, the Capones were running short of hope, and Marcus admits he was contemplating suicide.
Providentially, a family friend – one of Marcus’s former SEAL teammates – told them about a clinic outside the United States that had provided life-changing treatment for him. The clinic offered psychedelic-assisted therapy with a compound called ibogaine, synthesized from the iboga root.
Having been raised to believe that any illegal drug was bad, the Capones were – understandably – skeptical at first. But they were desperate.
“With my extensive and unsuccessful experience with pills, I was suspicious to say the least that an ibogaine pill, along with psychotherapy, could lead someone 24 hours later to be healed like they never thought possible,” Marcus admits. “I had zero experience with psychedelics or cannabis, so for me this was very different. But I trusted the individuals that were getting me to commit to the treatment, and the risks were outweighed by everything else.”
Breaking Point to Breakthrough
On Nov. 11, 2017 – Veterans Day – Marcus Capone says his life “completely changed.”
“When I went down to Mexico to do psychedelic treatments, I was at a tipping point where I didn’t want to be here anymore,” he recalls. “I thought life would be better for my family without me here. Ibogaine turned that all around, almost instantly. It’s kind of scary how fast it actually works.”
Marcus received treatment with ibogaine as well as 5-MeO-DMT, another naturally occurring psychedelic compound. The treatment sessions were intense, but the changes were profound – and immediate.
“You could tell even after the first session a weight had been lifted,” Amber says. “Marcus’s moods became increasingly more balanced, and his bouts of anxiety and depression became more manageable over time and eventually non-existent.”
After psychedelic-assisted therapy, Marcus says his “perspective on life completely changed for the better.”
“Psychedelic therapy didn’t just treat my symptoms. It unearthed resilience, healing and newfound strength,” he says. “I really believe that it was the catalyst that saved not just my life but my marriage and family.”
Paying it Forward
Marcus’s success with psychedelic-assisted therapy moved the Capones to share his story with other combat veterans who were experiencing similar challenges.
Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS) started out as “a grassroots effort,” Marcus explains. However, when a friend lost his battle to suicide, the Capones decided they couldn’t “stand by and allow anyone else to go through this when there could be a solution.”
In 2019, VETS became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, driven by a mission to end the veteran suicide epidemic by providing resources, research and advocacy for U.S. military veterans seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies for TBI, PTSD, addiction and other health conditions.
Since 2019, VETS has raised more than $13 million and supported nearly 1,000 U.S. Special Forces veterans and veteran spouses with psychedelic-assisted therapy treatment abroad (and in the U.S. with ketamine therapy), along with funding and other resources.
The mechanism through which VETS provides support is called the Foundational Healing Grant.
Each Foundational Healing Grant includes funding for psychedelic-assisted therapy; preparation and integration coaching sessions for veterans and their spouses; ongoing access to VETS’ Community Platform; as well as regular workshops, meditation and yoga classes.
To be considered for a Foundational Healing Grant, candidates must be U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) veterans with combat deployments after Sept. 11, 2001; spouses of SOF personnel in the program; and/or Gold Star Spouses of SOF personnel.
According to the VETS website, the nonprofit supports treatment and research with ibogaine, ketamine, psilocybin, MDMA, 5-MeO-DMT and ayahuasca.
“While we maintain a carefully vetted list of retreats – not partnerships – we primarily support those adhering to the protocols that initially inspired our mission in 2017, involving ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT,” Amber adds.
The Capones have assembled an impressive team with backgrounds that overlap psychedelic medicine, corporate America and the military. In addition, the VETS advisory board includes high-profile figures from the psychedelic movement such as Rick Doblin, Amanda Feilding and David Bronner.
Having the likes of Doblin, Bronner, Feilding and Dr. Lynn Marie Morski (president of the Psychedelic Medicine Association) on the VETS advisory board has helped Marcus and Amber Capone navigate a world “that we had no knowledge of prior to 2017,” says Amber.
“Their guidance and collaboration have been invaluable to our efforts at VETS,” she adds.
The Road Ahead
As with any nonprofit, funding is an ongoing challenge for VETS.
“The biggest challenge we’re facing is not being able to meet the overwhelming demand from veterans seeking our support,” Amber explains. “As a donor-reliant organization, the solution to helping more veterans and families lies in scaling our impact and meeting this demand through strategic policy changes.”
Through VETS, the Capones have been actively advocating for policy change at the state and federal levels, and they have several big wins to show for it.
In Texas, they helped shepherd the passage of House Bill 1802, which directs the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to study the efficacy of “alternative therapies” such as MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin in the treatment of veterans with PTSD. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed the bill to become law without his signature in June 2021.
Most recently, at the federal level, VETS successfully championed two amendments to the House’s National Defense Authorization Act: Amendment 48 and Amendment 137, both focused on clinical trials of psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans.
“We also collaborated closely with House representatives and their teams, producing essential fact sheets to counteract misinformation and boost support,” adds Amber. “We are currently focused on D.C. to unlock more federal funding to advance research for veterans and psychedelic therapies, primarily through our Foundational Healing Grants.”
VETS is making a positive impact on clinical research into psychedelic medicine as well.
All Foundational Healing Grant recipients are invited to participate in scientific research to contribute to existing knowledge of the safety and efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapies. Recently, 30 U.S. SOF veterans who received these grants from VETS participated in a Stanford University study that showed dramatic improvement in symptoms of TBI after ibogaine treatment. The results were published in Nature Medicine in January.
Amber Capone emphasizes that VETS advocates “for the safe, clinically guided administration of psychedelic therapies.” That message, she asserts, “is resonating with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and beyond.”
“We hope that the government, at the state and federal levels, will recognize the impact that these life-changing therapies can have on those suffering from the debilitating effects of TBI and PTSD,” Amber says. “We believe that psychedelic-assisted therapy can lay the foundation for further healing and are dedicated to ending the veteran’s mental-health crisis, one step at a time.”
Photos of Marcus and Amber Capone courtesy of Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS)