NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Trippy Talk: A True War Story with VETS Inc.

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When we sat down to speak with Marcus and Amber Capone, founders of VETS Inc., a book came to mind–The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It tells the tale of the author’s experience going through the Vietnam War and coming home. Transcendent, wrought with beautifully and brutally poetic renderings of war, the book blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction in O’Brien’s pursuit to answer this question: how do you tell a true war story? His imaginative, mythological meditation on war is a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling. Marcus and Amber’s moving journey reflects its transformative power.

I.

Tim O’Brien: It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

As Marcus Capone was completing SEAL training, the World Trade Center towers collapsed. He spent 13 years in the military–10 operational, 3 years as an instructor. He was away from his wife, Amber Capone, and children for about 300 days a year. Like so many of our veterans, Marcus was suffering; his family was suffering. Having tried everything to stabilize Marcus, Amber was about to give up. But she heard of one man who had done a mysterious treatment outside the United States–Ibogaine.

Ibogaine was Marcus and Amber’s last hope. Though there are risks associated with ibogaine, and more research must be done, the success that ibogaine is showing with PTSD and trauma-related injuries merit serious reflection. After one treatment, the change in Marcus was so immediate and astonishing, that the couple founded VETS Inc. in 2019, to get Ibogaine and psychedelic therapies into the hands of those who need healing–veterans of war, and their families.

We hold, at Reality Sandwich, Marcus and Amber’s story with the utmost reverence and respect. For their service, for their courage to step forward to tell their story. Ibogaine provided the Capone family tools to evolve this war story–under the weight of which so many human beings have suffered and continue to–into one of hope.

II.

Tim O’Brien: The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way, memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.

Marcus: People have to understand that Ibogaine is not a pill that an individual should expect to take once and be good for the rest of their lives. This is to get you back on the right path to healing. I liken it to getting in shape. You can’t go to the gym one time, or eat well one day, and expect it to last for the rest of your life. 

Current research is proving that the other psychedelic-assisted therapies are working with amazing results: psilocybin, MDMA with psychotherapy, ketamine treatment for suicidal ideation, or major depressive disorder.  As a nation, we’re starting to realize that these medicines taken correctly, prescribed in a clinical setting, are proving to be better than anything that’s out there on the market right now, especially traditionally prescribed antidepressants.

Amber: The entire veteran community is in crisis. We’ve started to see an uptick in suicides in our community, which is relatively new, and we felt compelled to act. We were also a little trepidatious because we didn’t know if this would work for more than just Marcus, or if it would last. The initial goal was to help 12 guys in a 12 month period, so that way, we could see if it would work for more than one person and if it would continue working. That goal was met relatively quickly. I think we definitely helped more than 12 guys in a year. We saw that really had something. So the next goal was to help 100. 

Marcus: After my ibogaine treatment, we just felt the necessity to share the knowledge of this powerful healing modality with everyone. We were able to raise a significant amount of money last year. Through that fundraising, we’ve been able to help upwards of 125 SEALs and special operations veterans. The word is getting out, people contact us regularly, and it’s very difficult to say no. But we have limited funding, and so we have to help our community first, with the vision to spread our message to the greater population of veterans and the larger civilian population suffering from mental health issues.

Amber: As we were approaching 80 people, we started getting serious about founding an actual organization, which has three pillars. 1) To provide immediate support for Veteran SEALs who are seeking psychedelic-assisted therapies by providing them with a funding grant to choose the healing of their choice. We also provide preparation and integration coaching.  2) We track outcome measures on everyone that receives funding from us. And 3) we use that data to advocate for broad change to veteran healthcare. Therefore, our 3 pillars are Resources, Research, and Advocacy.

RS: With those initial people, what were the results? 

Marcus: The results are pretty amazing. It’s as if everyone who first commits to the treatment is in a dark place of suffering and hopelessness, and they come out of the treatment reborn with a new positive outlook on self, family, and future purpose and success. The IRB approved a retrospective study of the initial individuals who went through treatment, and we’re waiting for the results.

As a Veteran, we all go through the same conveyor belt of what we hope is a successful path to healing. You go to the Veteran’s Administration, you visit with a doctor. They go, “okay, what’s wrong with you”? We have all the same symptoms, and so they provide us with SSRIs or SNRIs or talk therapy. They have a protocol that they’ve been using for years. But when the protocol doesn’t work, what do you do? Those are the individuals that are reaching out to us.   

I obviously deal with my own issues regularly. Psychedelic-assisted therapies have helped me navigate the underlying causes. If Amber and I can be a beacon of hope and help those folks that are struggling, then that’s a win for us. We just want everyone to know that we had some issues, got them fixed through the help of these medicines. Now let’s go help others. The ultimate goal is real change. 

Amber: The goal beyond that is to change veteran healthcare. 

III.

Tim O’Brien: They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

RS: What made you decide to go into the military Marcus?

Marcus: It’s such a good question. Both my parents were Woodstock era hippies. So when I first had that phone call with them during my senior year at college, they were like, “who is this? What happened to Marcus? Can we have our son back?” (laughter)

I don’t know what it was. I was an athlete my whole life. So, I was always part of a team and the thought of stepping off into the private sector when I was 22 years old, graduating college, scared the heck out of me. Who knows what they want to do at 22?

Honestly, I just happened to be watching TV one night and they started talking about this one special operations group that was the best of the best in the world. I just always wanted to be part of something that was great.

Amber: Marcus was approaching graduation and had seen something on TV about the SEAL teams. He had grown up across the street from the beach and was a competitive swimmer. So the water aspect, I feel, really drew him in. 

Marcus: SEALs come from the ocean. They come from the water. That made more sense. So, I started reading about it. And, when you read about it, you never think about war right? Because they don’t really talk about it that much. They say that these guys are the best, the brightest, the most in shape, the best at what they do. That’s what drew me in. I didn’t know we were going to war until I was in the third phase of SEAL training and the towers came down. So, we were the first class to graduate from BUD/S–Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training after 9/11. We had no clue what was going on. We’re like, “okay, we’re going to war.”

Amber: I literally thought he was going to leave the next day.

IV.

Tim O’Brien: But this too is true: stories can save us.

RS: When did you guys meet? Were you guys married at this time?

Marcus: We were in college when we met. 

Amber: I was actually in high school. My dad was Marcus’s head football coach in college. We ended up dating for a couple of years. But he was coming upon graduation and I was younger than him. So, we amicably decided to part ways. I have a lot of veterans in my family–I just never really saw myself married to someone in the military. I wanted to be single and live in the city.  And then, I found out I was pregnant two months before Marcus was set to leave. Devastating at the time, but I trusted, and it has ended up being the biggest blessing of my life. 

Marcus went to SEAL training, and the baby and I followed. Our son was born in 2000. He graduated BUD/S SEAL training in October of 2001. The attacks of 9-11 had just happened. I had no idea what I was getting into. Here I am, married to someone in the military, all of a sudden, and now he’s becoming a SEAL, and now it’s 9-11.

V.

Tim O’Brien: He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.

RS: Through this experience, what were the resources that were available to you? In terms of emotional support, what you were going to go through, did they prepare you in any way?

Marcus:  I think we learned a lot over the years. Initially, right after 911, I don’t think there was really anything set up. Then we had our first major loss. I don’t know if you remember Lone Survivor?

Operation Red Wings

The movie, Lone Survivor,  is a biographical military film that recounts the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission, Operation Red Wings, in Afghanistan. A team of four Navy SEALs was charged to disrupt local anti-coalition militia (ACM) activity in order to stabilize the region and facilitate the Afghan Parliament elections scheduled for September 2005.

Four Navy SEALS “fast-roped”–from the helicopter and into the location–to perform surveillance and reconnaissance of a group of structures used by an ACM with Islamic fundamentalist aspirations for the region in which the SEALs had just landed. Just hours in, they were ambushed. Three of the four SEALs killed, a quick reaction force helicopter was sent in to help. A rocket-propelled grenade killed all eight Navy SEALs and eight Army Special Operations aviators on board. The operation lasted three more weeks.

VI.

Tim O’Brien: …then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

Marcus: I was a part of that Task Unit.  The community wasn’t prepared for that large loss. And when that happened, there was a bit of a panic. First, you obviously just lost half a platoon of SEALs. You had to take care of the families, and just the horrible nature around the memorials and funerals. But then look at the guys, the surviving SEALs that were part of that platoon. So you had a lot of guys that were really struggling right away. Many of them and the families are still dealing with the aftermath all these years later. That’s what started–”oh, maybe we should have a plan”. 

From 2005 to 2010 was a bit of a blur. A lot of operations, a lot of killed in action, and that’s when everything kind of went a little crazy. During this time, of course, the Navy, the SEAL community, the Special Operations community–the veteran community as a whole–were trying to figure out how to deal with these losses, and support the soldier and the families. How do we solve this problem? We’re still trying to figure it out. Those years were really tough on everyone.

VII.

Tim O’Brien: War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.

Amber: There’s also this stigma of don’t say you need help, right? Because if you say you need help, they might, pull you from being operational. That would be devastating to the guys.

Marcus:  We leaned on each other–the families. So we helped each other. The wives network, the kids helped each other, and the guys got together and drank really hard. That’s what we did. As an outsider now looking back in, it was…

Amber: Survival.

Marcus: Survival. This is the way we deal with it. We go to war, we drink hard, we bury our buddies, we don’t really think about it. We come home, we hang out with the families a little bit and then go right back out overseas and deploy again. And, what we have found out after all these years is that you can’t do this forever. 

But everyone’s different. There are some guys that are still deploying and doing great. Then, there are others that needed a break. I think I fell right in between. I wish I had that strength and stamina to keep going. But something wasn’t right. Once you start doing that transition, you come off that bullet train, that’s when a lot of these problems start. 

VIII.

Tim O’Brien: The lack of a purpose sometimes drives the men crazy. They feel that there is no definite morality to what they are doing. They become desperate for anything, even a game of checkers, that has a definite winner and loser. Their own wartime life seems endless, repetitive, boring and terrifyingly pointless.

RS: What kind of problems started?

Marcus: You go into these like depressive states–what’s my purpose? Where’s my tribe? What’s my community? Then, you go to the VA for help. You get handed a bag of pills. You stay on those pills for eight years, which I did: SSRIs, SNRIs, all of them, all different types. They take six weeks to start working. And if they do start working, they only work for a couple of weeks, then you come back down to where you originally started.  A lot of times you go even below your base level. Then the guys who are struggling with pain are given, not just SSRIs, but oxycontin and all these other opioids. So now you’re a mess.

Amber: I think the average number of pills was between five and seven. So they’re given something to go to sleep, something to wake up, for anxiety, mood, focus, and pain.

IX.

Tim O’Brien: War has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true.

RS: Amber, on the other side of this, what was that like for you? I mean, in terms of your own emotional experience?

Amber: I tapped into my faith big time. I’m pretty determined. Very tough. I don’t quit to a fault. I’d frantically been trying to get Marcus into brain clinics, but I was coming to the realization that I was going to have to make a choice between Marcus or my kids because this was not sustainable. I felt in doing that, I was basically ensuring the fact that they would be fatherless. It was agonizing beyond words.

I felt like some sort of catastrophe would find Marcus within a couple of years, and had begun to work on forgiving myself for that because I felt that it was my duty to save him. I had kind of taken my eye off of the kids to try to stabilize Marcus. Inevitably I had to choose them, though, so I was coming to terms with this and preparing my way out.

RS: How were you functioning as a person, Marcus?

Marcus: I was functioning terribly. I was drinking as hard or harder than I ever did. I don’t know if that was just a coping mechanism, or what, but  I was drinking hard, getting behind the wheel. Like it didn’t matter. I wasn’t thinking clearly.

Amber: He didn’t care.

Marcus: I didn’t care about anything. I was angry, impulsive–holes in walls, throwing shit through windows– fighting, doing things that are not normal. It was getting worse. And Ibogaine was a last-ditch effort. We didn’t know anything about psychedelic-assisted therapy or even psychedelics at all. 

Amber: I worked behind the scenes because Marcus was at a brain clinic. It was actually three places. He was going to a brain clinic, doing hyperbaric oxygen twice a day, magnetic brain stimulation every day, and his funding was about to run out. So I’d say all together, he’s definitely over six figures and failed treatments or ones that just didn’t really move the needle.

I went to visit him. I had so much hope for these three places but Marcus was worse than he’d ever been. In less than 24 hours, I was back at home. I called my parents and told them that I couldn’t do this anymore. That’s what got me thinking again, there was that one other SEAL who had that one treatment.

Marcus’ dad had just died. I thought if nothing else, even if it does nothing for my marriage, my kids could still have a father, my mother-in-law won’t have the loss of her husband and her only child. This is a way to bring some relief to them. 

I was absolutely blown away when the treatment was so successful.

X.

Tim O’Brien: What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end…

Marcus: Ibogaine just gets to the root of all problems. If you have things that need to be worked out, traumas that are affecting you, it’s going to reach down and pull them up to the surface. You deal with a lot of those experiences. You face them. And then it’s like taking rocks out of a backpack. It’s taking that weight off of you. There are some really deep, emotional, waking experiences that you’re having. You’re living out these dreams, like in reality.  Having a psychotherapist present during these experiences is so important because you’re going to be utterly confused as to what’s going on. 

RS: You could feel that, throughout the experience, something lifting or things starting to restructure?

Marcus:  Throughout the Ibogaine experience, your brain is literally defragging itself, like a computer. It’s taking all your thoughts and emotions and filing them.  This defragging of your mind is playing out in front of you like a movie. As your brain files come into order, and your past traumas and experiences are resurfacing and you are dealing with them, you start to get this sense of calmness and positive outlook.  

XI.

Tim O’Brien: And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight.

Amber: When I saw him the next day, he was so calm. His demeanor was totally different, like when we were in college. He was always just so easy to be around. The personality changes were the hardest thing to deal with. So to see him like that, in that true self-state, was a beautiful thing. Immediately, he said, “We’ve got to help more people.”

RS: So it was that immediate and sustained…

Amber: Yes! It was unbelievable. He’d say things like, “Wow, look at how beautiful those leaves are when the wind blows.” 

Marcus: The glow definitely goes away after 3,6,9 months. Everyone is different. It’s been two years now and I’m still reaping the benefits. I don’t fly off the handle like I used to, my relationships are stronger… so many things have changed. 

Amber: And he hasn’t been drinking.

Marcus: Ibogaine cuts off the addiction pathway. It doesn’t matter what the addiction is. I still have depressive episodes, but I’m definitely able to work through it now. I always know there’s hope. The anger and impulsivity have gone away–that has stuck for two years. I owe that to that first experience with Ibogaine.   

Amber: Marcus is obviously so compelled to help other SEALs. I’m super compelled to provide relief for families because they’re truly, in my opinion, the unsung heroes of the last 20 years. There’s very little fanfare around the families.  The guys chose this and by default, I chose this. I chose to be married to Marcus to stay married and support him. The kids didn’t choose this. There are many kids who’ve lost their dads–even if their dads are at home. If you can impact the veterans, you can impact the family, and then, you’ll impact generations.

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