Marcus Capone is a former Navy SEAL who, like many of his teammates completed multiple combat deployments overseas. After returning home and retiring from service, Marcus and his wife Amber faced an escalating crisis of depression, anxiety and suicidality that was underpinned by Marcus’ post transition struggles and years of head trauma from football and military service. After exhausting every conventional treatment option imaginable, they eventually turned to ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT treatment outside the US, and only then found a medicine that truly worked.
Since then, Marcus and Amber have gone on to found Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions (VETS), a nonprofit that is partnered with MAPS and provides resources for combat veterans seeking psychedelic treatment for TBI and PTSD. In this interview, Marcus and Amber share their harrowing journey through desperation and redemption, and why they are stepping up to help other veterans overcome depression, suicide, and broken family lives.
First and foremost, thank you both for doing this. I heard you share your story at the recent MAPS conference in Austin, but can you share your incredible journey for our readers?
Amber: This is actually the first interview we’ve done. We’ve been holding this very tightly and we’ve turned down a lot of requests, so we’re honored to share this today after over two years of silence.
Marcus: I’ve had a history of contact sports since I was seven years old. I played tackle football all the way through my senior year of college, and from there I entered the military. I spent 13 years attached to the SEAL Teams, and part of being a SEAL is that you spend a large portion of your time around gunfire and explosives. I was a breacher, which means I was one of the explosives experts of the team who either detonated or was near a lot of different detonations. So I had years of contact sports, fighting, and proximity to explosions.
What the experts are telling us is that all these sub-concussive and concussive blows to the head are causing a major impact on our brain. After transitioning out of the military and trying to find purpose and direction, I fell into a black hole of depression and anxiety, mixed with mild traumatic brain injury, and it was a recipe for disaster.
Amber: When Marcus got out of the military, we thought we would be riding our bikes down the road, skipping and holding hands, [laughter]. We were adjusted to the war deployments; they were just a reality. I wasn’t at all prepared for the fact that the next war would be in our home… fighting to save Marcus and our family.
At first, his only diagnosis was PTSD, but that never really resonated with me. Trauma definitely existed, but he was not hypervigilant and wasn’t checking the doors five times or petrified of fireworks. It was more like he forgot to check the locks and was too depressed to go watch fireworks, so it felt different. I didn’t ever buy into the PTSD-only diagnosis. Then one of his buddies committed suicide and they performed an autopsy and found a serious brain disease. That got me really worried because all the symptoms fit. This was more than PTSD, so I got him to all the top brain clinics, 5 in total. It entailed weeks and weeks away from home.
Marcus: I went to five different clinics, and took eight different SSRI’s, SNRI’s, sleeping pills and pills to allow me to focus and stay awake. My SPECT scans were not good: they showed mild traumatic brain injury, PTSD markers, depression, and stuff that I never had in the past, like ADD and ADHD, and mood disorder.
Amber: When he first got out of the military, we thought he just needed a break from deploying to transition out. But each year he was getting worse and worse. There was no relief, and it was just continuing to escalate. All these brain clinics didn’t really make a difference, and we were really coming to the end. I started to become afraid of him, and our kids were living a hellish existence… we all were.
I knew that if I left him it would be a real recipe for a disaster, but I was out of hope. I went to visit him at one of these clinics and he was worse than ever. I came home and told my parents that I had to leave him, and for me that was a huge step. It’s something I thought I’d never do. But then I remembered that there was this one other treatment that a SEAL had done. I reached out to him to get Marcus to go and try it too. I didn’t know if it would make any difference; I thought it would be just like all the other clinics… but it worked.
Marcus: Some individuals say the medicine finds you. We were made aware through family friends that an individual had been helped in a clinic outside the US by taking part in a psychedelic assisted therapy session with a medicine called Ibogaine, synthesized from the Iboga root. I thought it was ridiculous that you can take a pill (because I had already been handed bags of pills), and along with psychotherapy, 24 hours later be healed and reborn like you never thought possible. 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.
I was treated with a flood dose of Ibogaine, an alkaloid found in the root bark of the African plant Tabernanthe Iboga. After a 12-hour very intense trip to hell and back, (literally one of the scariest experiences of my life), I had a 24-hour recovery, and then I was treated with 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic of the Tryptamine class, extracted from the venom of the Colorado River Toad (no shit!). These are two of the world’s most powerful psychedelics, and they radically changed my life.
I initially thought this may have been just subjective and too good to be true. But the impact this has had, and continues to have on myself and others is lasting and powerful.
That’s incredible. How did you go from your treatment experience to starting your nonprofit VETS?
Marcus: The first thing I did was turn to Amber and ask, “How do we help everybody else who is struggling the same way I was?” The only way to do this was to raise money and build a nonprofit so we could fund others to receive the same type of experience that I had. So that’s what we did—we kind of got after it with glue and tape. We worked with a few individuals, an amazing doctor and provider of the medicine, the best therapists and coaches, hooked up with some advisors, and here we are today. We want this to flourish because of all the mental health issues happening in our country, including those involving the veteran community, and we feel that psychedelics are going to play an integral part in healing our soldiers, and perhaps a larger component of society as a whole. We are focusing on SEALs and their families first, then eventually all Special Operations veterans, and can only work with those who are retired and no longer serving.
Some veterans separate from service and have amazing, successful lives, but many of them are suffering just like I was. Some are isolating themselves for weeks or months, divorcing their spouses, losing their families… it’s terrible. You serve for 20 or 30 years and you expect to retire and have this wonderful life (as they should) in the private sector, but sometimes it actually gets worse.
Amber: Marcus came through treatment and within 24 hours he was saying that we have to help more people, because the veteran community is in absolute crisis, and it is experiencing many suicides. I was sitting at a funeral of a dear friend and I thought, “I don’t ever want to be in this chapel again! We have to do something.”
Marcus: And it’s not just the SEAL community—the greater special operations community is having a real hard time. We’re being told the SF [Special Forces] operators in Australia, New Zealand and the UK are really struggling, and we’d love to eventually help them if/where we can.
Amber: We have a great burden on our shoulders, but it’s an honor to carry forward this message of hope.
Marcus: Some days I wonder, “Why the fuck are we doing this?” because it can be frustrating and full of headaches due to the sensitive nature of the treatments. We’re dealing with individuals who are really struggling. It’s challenging, but when I get a text message from someone who just got out of treatment that says “Hey man, you saved my life and kept my family together, I can’t thank you enough,” it’s all I need to hear to keep going.
Let’s say I’m a veteran having a tough time. I’ve seen Soldiers of the Vine and From Shock to Awe where veterans are using ayahuasca to heal. I read this and hear that ibogaine and 5-MeO-DMT is a great way to heal. I come across MAPS and their research saying that MDMA-assisted therapy is the way to overcome PTSD. I’m hopeless and I’m not sure where to go. What would you say to that person?
Amber: The goal of the nonprofit is to provide funding for those seeking psychedelic assisted therapy on their own. We have multiple treatment options that we can help fund. So if they choose ibogaine and 5-MeO, or ketamine, or MDMA-assisted psychotherapy or psilocybin, we want to be able to provide them with what they need to seek the treatment they choose.
So when a veteran comes to us, we educate them on the risks and benefits associated with all of them, but they do their own homework and present a plan. We’ll assist with some due diligence on different clinics, but we won’t ever direct or suggest any specific clinic or modality. About half of those coming to us are having suicidal ideation, and we want to help them discover and pursue treatment before it’s too late. We also provide preparation and integration coaching as well, because that’s such a huge component of the overall process.
Marcus: It’s not my job to steer people to ibogaine. We can’t prescribe or diagnose individuals because we are not doctors. But we can make sure they know about the research, and all the options that are out there, and where people can go to legally pursue these alternative treatments.
That’s really great. How can people donate to VETS or contact you for help?
Marcus: Our website is vetsolutions.org. We have a partnership with MAPS, and so all donations to us are tax deductible, and very soon we will have our own 501(c)(3) designation, as well. In 2020, we’d like to be able to support 200 soldiers, but as you know that’s a hefty price tag and so we’ll definitely need the donor support. If someone would like to donate they can go to our website’s donation page.