The first time Cory Poolman did an Iboga ceremony last year, the Navy SEAL veteran believed the powerful psychedelic medicine he took as part of the ritual had sent him to hell, literally.
The integration coaches on hand to help guide Poolman through his Iboga journey at the treatment center in Mexico had all become demons in his mind; they couldn’t be trusted.
In a tiny village in the Central African nation of Gabon, the blond, hazel-eyed SEAL recently recalled that early episode in his long healing journey with a smile and a laugh. When Poolman left the SEAL teams in 2018, he was suffering from depression and anxiety. Though the nightmarish visions he experienced in his first Iboga journey were terrifying at the time, he’s come a long way since venturing through some of the darkest parts of his psyche. On the other side of his temporary descent into hell was the beginning of what he and many other U.S. military veterans have described as a sort of spiritual awakening — a cognitive reset that brings a new outlook and lease on life.
“I was just constantly trapped in my mind,” Poolman told me in Gabon. “I had so much negative dialogue about myself going on, and the medicine showed me how to quiet that dialogue and take control of my mind so that my thoughts could no longer control me and work against me.”
In 2017, Poolman helped take back the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS while serving as a military working dog handler in SEAL Team 7. Eddie Gallagher, the now-retired Navy Chief charged with and acquitted of war crimes on that deployment, was Poolman’s platoon chief.
Poolman and “Hal,” a former Army Ranger — his real name is being withheld by Task & Purpose at his request — made the pilgrimage to Gabon in June to train under a 10th-generation Bwiti Shaman and learn how to heal others with traditional Bwiti Iboga ceremonies.
For thousands of years, the Tabernanthe Iboga shrub has been central to the Bwiti spiritual tradition practiced in Central West African nations such as Gabon, Cameroon, and the Congo Republic. Followers of Bwiti incorporate animism, ancestor worship, and Christianity into a syncretistic belief system in which the psychedelic, mind-altering root bark of the Iboga plant is used ritualistically to promote health and happiness.
As a member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, Hal completed five combat deployments — four to Iraq and one to Afghanistan — before spending time as a personal-security contractor and then getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Columbia University in New York.
Poolman and Hal met each other along the same healing path that thousands of veterans are now following as more and more people in search of healing turn to psychedelic-assisted therapies and centuries-old indigenous, psychospiritual, plant-medicine ceremonies.
“We are in a psychedelic renaissance, and not just in the United States, but around the world,” says Dr. Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). After President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs and signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971, Doblin — a self-proclaimed “old hippie from the ’60s” — dedicated his life to the goal of bringing psychedelic research and therapies back to the forefront of Western psychiatry.
Psychedelic research in the U.S. began its rise in the 1950s, slowly gaining speed before peaking in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when funding began to dry up in the wake of the politicization and cultural stigmatization of psychedelics. Doblin says that in the last few years, research on psychedelic therapies has reached a level about four times the amount back in those peak years, and Doblin says veterans in search of healing are helping to fuel the resurgence.
Rick Perry, the former Republican Governor of Texas and U.S. Energy Secretary for the Trump Administration, has become a vocal supporter of psychedelic research and therapies for veterans. Perry, who served as a C-130 Hercules pilot in the Air Force in the ’70s, says he learned about the power of psychedelic therapies through his friendship with Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who became the “Lone Survivor” of his four-man SEAL team in the infamous Operation Red Wings mission that claimed the lives of 19 Americans in a single day. Luttrell is one of the many US veterans who turned to psychedelic therapies after years of searching for effective treatments and healing for post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other ailments common among veterans.
Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a retired Navy SEAL who represents Texas’ 2nd District, is one of several members of Congress who have recently come out in favor of legislation promoting psychedelic therapies and research.
“We need new ideas because it seems we’re losing the battle with veteran suicide,” Crenshaw said on the U.S. House floor last month while testifying in favor of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would promote psychedelic therapy research for active-duty military members. “Active-duty service members … are precluded from even trying treatments such as psychedelics that could save their lives and bring hope to their families.”
Crenshaw also cited the example of Marcus Capone, a medically-retired SEAL Team SIX operator who credits psychedelic therapy with saving his life and bringing his family back together. In 2019, Marcus and his wife Amber Capone founded Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS), a nonprofit that provides resources, research, and advocacy for U.S. veterans seeking treatment with psychedelic-assisted therapies.
Like more than 300 other special operations veterans, Cory Poolman and Hal found their way to psychedelic therapies through the Capones’ charity, which provided them grants to undergo psychedelic therapies at retreat centers in Mexico.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you how many different psychologists I went to,” Marcus Capone said, describing how he suffered for years with intense anxiety and depression connected to the traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress caused by his service as a breacher in the SEAL teams. “It was the traditional Western medicine approach of antidepressants and talk therapy, and I wasn’t getting any better.”
“I just got more frustrated, more angry, and more isolated,” Marcus said.
Marcus said he was morbidly depressed and on the verge of suicide when he tried psychedelic treatments as a last resort. During a five-day retreat in Mexico in November 2017, Marcus completed an ibogaine treatment followed by treatment with 5-MeO-DMT, another powerful psychedelic used medicinally by indigenous peoples in parts of northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
Ibogaine is a single alkaloid extracted from the Iboga root, and its effects and treatment benefits are similar. Because the pure form of the root bark contains all of its naturally-occurring alkaloids, it is more potent than ibogaine, and its effects last longer. Ibogaine and Iboga can cause cardiac arrest in people with certain heart conditions, and health providers who administer the compounds usually screen out patients with high-risk factors.
“Those treatments saved my life,” Marcus says. “My life had been so dark for so long, and after those treatments, my whole perspective flipped — a complete 180.”
Sometimes called “the God particle,” 5-MeO-DMT is a powerful psychedelic found in the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad and in a variety of plant species. It can also be produced synthetically.
In 2019, European researchers observed that a single inhalation of 5-MeO-DMT was associated with sustained improvements in satisfaction with life, mindfulness, and a reduction of psychopathological symptoms, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, out of 362 5-MeO-DMT users surveyed in another study, approximately 80 percent of respondents reported improvements in anxiety and depression. Improvements were also related to stronger beliefs that the experience contributed to enduring well-being and life satisfaction.
Hal says 5-MeO-DMT treatments ended his depression and the persistent migraines he used to experience regularly.
“It also helped me out physically by releasing a lot of the physical trauma from old injuries I suffered while I was a Ranger,” he says.
Marcus Capone and other special operations veterans who have found healing with ibogaine have affectionately dubbed it “the nuclear option” of psychedelic therapies, mostly because the 14- to 24-hour journey can be very unpleasant, especially for anyone who has to visit and confront dark, painful experiences and traumas.
Dr. Martín Polanco is a medical doctor and researcher who specializes in treating addiction, mild-traumatic brain injuries, and post-traumatic stress with psychedelics. In 2017, Polanco founded The Mission Within (TMW), an organization that provides psychedelic treatments to veterans and their spouses. Polanco says TMW has treated more than 600 special operations veterans and their spouses, and the majority of the veterans he treats suffer from “operator syndrome.” A 2020 research paper in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine defines operator syndrome as “the accumulation of physiological, neural, and neuroendocrine responses resulting from the prolonged chronic stress; and physical demands of a career with the military special [operations] forces.”
“Operator syndrome really refers to a combination of issues,” Polanco says. “It’s related to blast exposure and toxicity, chronic pain, hormone dysregulation, sleep apnea, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, insomnia, rage, marital issues and substance abuse.”
Polanco says mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress are the two most common issues TMW focuses on treating, and ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT provide a highly effective treatment modality.
After experiencing profound, positive effects from ibogaine, Iboga and 5-MeO-DMT treatments, Poolman and Hal were inspired to study the Bwiti tradition and become Iboga providers. They just completed two months of intensive training under Missoko Bwiti Shaman Moughenda Mikala at Mikala’s Iboga Retreat Center on the edge of the Gabonese jungle.
As a 10th-generation shaman, Mikala passes on the Bwiti traditions and healing practices to his people and those who enroll in his Iboga Provider Training, where students initiate in the Bwiti tradition, participate in numerous ceremonies and complete rites of passage.
“I think Iboga and the Bwiti teachings are what veterans need,” Poolman says. “We need to help these guys reprogram their minds after they get back from war, and that’s what Iboga and other plant medicines will do. Iboga will show you your mind, and the Bwiti teachings will show you how to reprogram it.”
Polanco says the benefits of the experience are about 30% the psychedelic journey itself, and the other 70% is what is known in the world of psychedelic therapies as “integration.”
“It’s not just what you experience and what you see; it’s what you do with it,” Polanco says. “What kind of habits and practices are you developing in your integration phase after the treatments? Some of the main benefits you can derive from session experiences are being better able to focus, and being more calm and present. We see these compounds as a means to an end.”
According to Veterans Health Administration data, at least 17 American veterans die of suicide each day. Rates of mental illness and suicide in the U.S. have risen substantially since 2000, and one in five adults now experience mental illness each year. The overall suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by 35% since 1999, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen N. Xenakis is a psychiatrist who has advised the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior Department of Defense officials on psychological health and the effects of blast concussion. He is a co-founder and clinical practice advisor for Reason for Hope, a nonprofit focused on preventing deaths of despair by helping to develop and advocate for the policy and legal reforms needed to facilitate safe and affordable access to psychedelic medicine and assisted therapies.
“We are at a time when mental health needs are just exploding for a number of reasons, and the current treatments probably help less than half of the people,” Xenakis says. “There’s just too many people finding that they’re not getting the help that they need and suffering seriously. And it’s really impacting their lives and their livelihood, and probably impacting the safety and security of our communities. So we’ve clearly got a huge need here, but we also have this huge capability of psychedelics. But it’s not just the drug — the compounds. It’s the therapy; it’s the setting. That’s huge. So we’ve got to figure out the right way to do this.”
Hal says he is learning everything he can about Iboga and other psychedelic therapies because he wants to help connect his fellow veterans and anyone in need to the treatments.
“I’ve seen the benefits firsthand, several times over,” he says. “I think we’re on the verge of a major inflection point where everything’s going to change. We’re going to see veterans elected to Congress who have benefited from these medicines, and they’re going to be pushing for access for other veterans and really opening it up to not only the military, but also civilians. I think psychedelic therapies are going to spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. And if you look at the rates of mental illness and suicide in our country, that massive expansion of access to these therapies can’t come soon enough.”
Ethan E. Rocke is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning photographer and filmmaker based in San Antonio. After serving as an infantryman with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division from 1998 to 2001, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a “storyteller of Marines,” working as a writer, photojournalist, editor and film consultant.
This report was made possible thanks to funding from Military Veterans in Journalism.