🫠 Psychonaut POV

[6-min read] Q&A with Jesse Gould, Veteran & Founder

Welcome to Tricycle Day. Our veterans have risked their lives to protect our rights. So you better believe we’re exercising ‘em. Freedom of the press, FTW. 🙌 

Jesse Gould, like so many veterans, faced his own personal hell readjusting to civilian life after serving his country. So when an ayahuasca ceremony brought him relief he couldn’t find anywhere else, he launched the Heroic Hearts Project as a lifeline for other vets like him.

We spoke to Jesse about tapping into the warrior spirit through plant medicine, why the veteran voice is so critical to psychedelic policy reform, and what the future holds for community-based healing in the military community and beyond.

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Jesse Gould Psychonaut POV
Tell us about your personal journey from serving as an Army Ranger to founding the Heroic Hearts Project. What motivated you to take this path?

My journey's been anything but a straight line. Right out of college, I began my career in investment banking. Then the financial crisis hit, and I witnessed the impact of Wall Street's greed firsthand. That’s when I took the direction from the universe to pivot towards something more meaningful.

So I joined the military. I enlisted in the Army Rangers because I wanted to be surrounded by the best, and soon I was leading troops through three deployments in Afghanistan. I discovered a newfound confidence and a broader perspective on life from my time serving. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life.

Leaving the military during peacetime came with its own challenges. I’d hit a ceiling climbing the ranks, and I felt it was time for a new chapter. So I shifted to a finance role in Tampa, Florida. On the surface, things looked good—promotions, a solid network—but internally, it was a different story.

As I transitioned from the military's structured intensity to a nine-to-five job, the traumas I'd been carrying from my time in service bubbled to the surface. I found myself relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism, and it got to the point where I could no longer ignore the red flags. The VA wasn’t particularly helpful, either. Their capacity was stretched thin, and I wasn't keen on medication anyway. I'd seen the effects of SSRIs and wasn't sold.

Then, I stumbled upon ayahuasca in a podcast. Psychedelics hadn’t been on my radar, but ayahuasca's indigenous, ceremonial aspect struck a chord. It felt like a call I couldn't ignore. Soon, I was on a plane to Peru.

Those four ceremonies were intense, to say the least. The first two were a whirlwind of chaos, pushing me to the brink. It was a dance between surrender and survival. By the third, I found a serene pocket within the storm. It was a real lesson for me in letting go. Finally, the fourth ceremony was a peaceful, profound experience that reconnected me with what I can only describe as the warrior spirit.

After Peru, I started sharing my story with fellow veterans, who were also struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. The veteran community needed a lifeline, and that's when the idea for Heroic Hearts was born. I’d found my new purpose.

Established in 2017, Heroic Hearts focuses on providing psychedelic-assisted therapy to veterans. I knew our programs would have to be practical and steer clear of stereotypes that could alienate skeptics. Collaborations with universities have reinforced our evidence-based approach. Heroic Hearts isn't just about psychedelics; it's about offering a path to healing for those who've served.

How has HHP contributed to research on the impacts of psychedelics on veterans with PTSD and other combat-related trauma? Can you share any significant findings?

Initially, we wanted to demonstrate ayahuasca’s impact on PTSD using the CAPS-5 PTSD assessment, the same measuring stick used by the VA. Surprisingly, only three out of five of our first participants qualified, despite all being rated by the VA. So we were back to the drawing board.

Next, we teamed up with the University of Georgia for a broader personality study. The results were striking. We saw a significant drop in neuroticism, which is linked to a whole host of other mental health issues.

Now, we're knee-deep in a series of ongoing observational studies. Our approach allows us to explore areas clinical trials often miss with their heavy controls.

For instance, we’re actively running three such studies at the University of Texas Austin Dell Medical School. The first is focused on bereaved spouses, who’ve lost service members in combat or to suicide. We're using psilocybin to target their depression. Next, we're looking at ayahuasca's effects on combat PTSD in veterans. The third study centers around ibogaine, specifically targeting traumatic brain injury in special operations veterans. This is a particularly vital study, as TBI can have lasting, complex effects that demand specialized attention.

We’re also in the middle of a cutting-edge study with Beckley Retreats and Imperial College London. This one explores psilocybin's effects on TBI. We're not only examining psychiatric aspects but also employing EEG assessments to gauge cognitive improvement. Between the brain imaging and array of psychiatric surveys, we believe this research can make groundbreaking contributions to the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy.

Our ayahuasca study with Onaya Science and the Ayahuasca Foundation is just as pioneering. We’re capturing a wide range of assessments, from gut microbiome to brainwaves and gene expression. Early results are very promising, suggesting that ayahuasca could offer a novel approach to tackling PTSD on a molecular level. We’re optimistic that this type of research can open up a whole new dimension of mental health treatment.

All of this important research takes funding, so I want to highlight pioneers who help us advance the scientific understanding of these powerful substances. A huge thanks to Tim Ferris, Grant Town, and Dr. Bronner's, among countless others.

Looking ahead, we're poised to pioneer the first legal, above-ground veteran cohort in Oregon. This community-based care model is revolutionary in its approach. By providing not just therapy but long-term support within a community of fellow veterans, we're tapping into a powerful, age-old method of healing.

Given our focus on veterans, we have a unique platform to showcase the power of community-based care. We're well-positioned to drive positive change and share our model for broader impact.

What about the advocacy side? What are some of the legislative efforts that HHP is focused on, and what have you learned from engaging in the political process?

In the early stages, we actively joined policy efforts, starting with DC after Denver's successful decriminalization initiative. It quickly became evident that the veteran perspective held substantial weight with politicians. Hearing veterans speak on their struggles and transformations has really influenced their stance on psychedelics as a viable treatment option.

Our involvement has been strategic. We ensure that bills not only benefit veterans but also pave the way for future empowerment, all while being mindful of the diverse needs of different groups. We've extended support to various states, from Colorado to Texas, Kentucky, and Massachusetts, sponsoring bills and offering testimonies.

Engaging on the federal level has been enlightening. Collaborating with organizations like Reason for Hope, the Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition, Healing Breakthrough, and New Approach, we've learned the critical importance of advocating for funding, especially for breakthrough therapies like MDMA and psilocybin. Though faced with setbacks, like the vetoed California bill, we've seen firsthand the transformative power of the veteran voice in influencing psychedelic policy.

Are there any stories you can share of other veterans who’ve experienced remarkable outcomes with ayahuasca? What role does community support play in these transformations?

Community is baked into everything we do. For every participant, we devote four to six weeks to preparation, including individual coaching by our veteran coaches and spouses. We cover practices like breath work, mindfulness, and dietary adjustments. This groundwork sets the stage for a successful retreat, and it would be impossible without community support.

Post-retreat, the focus shifts to integration and holding participants accountable for incorporating positive habits. The community plays a vital role in long-term care, preventing isolation and offering support during tough times.

The stories we hear are astounding. Participants share transformative experiences, like recovering the ability to dream at night. Many find inner peace and self-love for the first time. It's moving to see the weight visibly lifted off their shoulders as they light up and smile.

One poignant story is about a Green Beret named Rudy. He came in stoic, but ayahuasca opened him up. After the retreat, he found the courage to transition out of a destructive relationship. His bonding moments with his son became genuine and filled with joy, when they’d been sterile and even militant before.

We also work with Vietnam veterans, who've carried deep scars for decades. Offering them relief and releasing some of their guilt is profoundly impactful. Many who come to us have tried countless treatments, feeling like they're barely holding on. For them, even a glimmer of hope is monumental. It shows them there's a path to improvement, a way out of the haze of medication and despair.

When you reflect on your work with HHP since 2017, what are you most proud of, and what are you most looking forward to?

I've learned to celebrate victories more. It's easy to move on to the next thing, but I'm proud of our team and the incredible people I've worked with. They're dedicated, even if they're not compensated as much as they could be elsewhere. They find purpose and magic in this work. It can be a tough uphill battle, but they’re motivated by the mission.

This year, I've realized I'm proud of the traction we're gaining. People value our work and see its impact. I'm also seeing a new generation emerging, who’ve been inspired by our model and empowered to lead with their own voices and experiences. It's heartening to pass the torch, knowing the message will resonate differently as it evolves.

The adoption of a community-based approach to mental health is something I really look forward to. Mental healthcare should be accessible to all, not just those who can afford it. We need these peer and community-led efforts. Not every issue requires a therapist; many can be resolved through active listening and accountability.

While it may not change the world entirely, breaking down these barriers empowers more people to live authentically. It’s a step we can take toward a healthier and more fulfilled society.

Want more from Jesse?

Participate in a retreat for veterans, apply for the Hope Project for spouses and families, or learn about other ways to support the Heroic Hearts Project.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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