RESHAPING THE BRAIN
An ayahuasca trip started Jesse Gould, former U.S. Army Ranger,
on a whole new career path.
By Will Martin
(Men's Health Magazine)
Jesse Gould’s post-military mission is devoted to helping other combat veterans by improving their mental health, anxiety, and PTSD. And it grew from a heavy life experience that came courtesy of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“There wasn’t one Hollywood moment, a Saving Private Ryan kind of thing,” says Gould, a veteran of the Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion. “The training gets you in a certain dynamic. It’s a build-up surrounding the very absurd life you get used to.”
Gould first felt the call to arms while working at an investment bank in New York in 2009. Compelled by the sacrifice of icons like Pat Tillman, the NFL safety who turned down millions playing the sport and instead enlisted in the Army, Gould traded in the fragility of Wall Street for the rigors of boot camp.
Though armed with an Ivy League degree, he took a pass on the officer career path, choosing instead to throw his lot in with the enlisted Rangers, the Army’s Special Operations infantry force. “If I’m doing this, I might as well go full-in,” he says he remembered thinking.
The Rangers didn’t disappoint, deploying him to Afghanistan three times in his four-year enlistment. Gould took to the physicality and challenge of his missions, and was promoted quickly to mortar platoon section leader, where he was responsible for more than 30 soldiers.
Like most Rangers, sleep deprivation and the threat of death saturated his military career. As a mortarman, he specialized in launching short-range explosives from a metal cylinder that would move the earth under his feet.
“Essentially, for the majority of my career, there was always this kind of huge concussive force,” Gould says. “There were times I had gunners walk away with bloody noses or punch-drunk.”
Gould emerged from the military with a bedrock of confidence, but ignorant of the undercurrent of physical and emotional trauma that had rewired his brain.
“I’m not freaking out in the grocery store in the milk aisle or waking up and pulling a gun on somebody,” he remembers thinking. “I thought I was good to go.”
Gould returned to finance, taking a gig in Tampa, and promotions soon followed. But so did a pervasive anxiety, numbed by heavy drinking, which included the occasional early morning cocktail to settle his nerves before work.
Gould says he felt stuck. An underwhelming visit to Veterans Affairs and a steady stream of exercise, meditation, and journaling did little to move the needle. It was amid that misery that Gould heard about ayahuasca on a Joe Rogan podcast. Initially, ayahuasca was a tough sell for Gould, whose avoidance of drugs ran deep: “I was a D.A.R.E. kid. I never even to this day have smoked pot.”
But desperation drove him to research the plant-based psychedelic drink, used for centuries among Amazonian indigenous cultures. Intrigued by ayahuasca’s cultural roots and trusting his intuition, he gave his work a few months’ notice, sold his possessions, and bought a one-way ticket to Peru for a psychedelic retreat: “I knew I had to get out of the toxic bubble I had created.”
The weeklong program involved four nights of imbibing the psychoactive concoction, a process intended to break down the protective walls of one’s ego — “the stuff we are really good at storing or compartmentalizing,” says Gould.
Gould says he experienced severe anxiety and discomfort after drinking ayahuasca the first couple nights, complete with hallucinations and persistent vomiting, causing him to wonder if his intuition had failed him. The third night, a shift occurred.
“It was almost like a hand pulled me through all the discomfort and instantly put me in this peace mode,” Gould says, describing a sense of surrender and ease taking root in his soul. “It felt like for the first time my brain was functioning as a cohesive unit; that it wasn’t out to get me.”
Returning to Tampa, the transformation endured. Gould found himself able to reframe past trauma and current stressors from a place of creativity and compassion. What he lacked, however, was a network of support in the psychedelic space that was specific to veterans. So, he started his own, launching the Heroic Hearts Project in 2017.
“The hardest work is integration,” says Gould. “Vets need localized accountability and community.”
Under Gould’s leadership, Heroic Hearts volunteers coach veterans exploring psychedelic treatments — assessing if they’re a good fit, vetting retreat centers, offering guidance on diet and travel. The nonprofit also partners with major universities and lawmakers in spearheading veteran-centric psychedelics research and policy change in the U.S. and abroad.
“Overall, military veterans perform much worse than other PTSD populations to treatments,” says neuroscientist Grace Blest-Hopley, Ph.D., director of research for Heroic Hearts and a British Army reserve officer.
The veteran community has taken notice. The Heroic Hearts waitlist numbers more than 1,200 veterans, most struggling with PTSD or military sexual trauma.
We’re trying to build a community, keep tabs on people if they need help down the line,” says Gould. “What we’re doing is really on the tip of the spear.”