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How can I square away the lads?

By Sonny Smith

Over the past two years, whilst working a security role in Canada that meant being away from my family during Covid, I took a deep dive into the literature surrounding psychedelics, particularly psilocybin. The more I began to read and research the further down the rabbit hole I went. Wanting reassurance of the legitimacy of this apparent miracle medicine I began to speak with my colleagues about the many studies and anecdotal stories that were coming back from veterans who'd experienced the healing powers of mushrooms and other psychedelics, notably Ayahuasca. My colleagues were nearly all ex-military guys from a mixture of nationalities and age groups. When raising the topic to discuss the application for various mental health treatments for veterans, the conversation, although backed by science, was a hard one to keep afloat. It's clear that the old school of thought, often taught to us in school, gives many of us an instant dismissal reaction to these plant medicines being seriously discussed. This cultural taboo stands firm today.

Upon leaving that security role my quest to find like-minded people became a priority, I needed reassurance that this stuff was genuine!

In late 2021 I found out about the Heroic Hearts Project and the Heroic Hearts Project UK and applied to become an ambassador. Over the next few months, I became fully plugged into a network of people from all over the globe who were wholeheartedly on board with psychedelic-assisted therapies. Not only that - everyone had first-hand experience of the benefits of these treatments and a passion for sharing the knowledge to help others. I'd found my team.

It was clear that I sat at the bottom of the pile in terms of knowledge on the subject and experience too, although by this time I had personally confirmed the healing properties of psilocybin. But that's ok, I may not be a scientist, a doctor, or even able to understand scientific papers to their full degree a lot of the time but I knew enough to understand the importance of this to help the lads back home. I'm a soldier anyway, I may have been a reservist but I did a bit and rubbed shoulders with some of our country's best as a bootneck Royal Marine and in the Special Boat Service too. All through my career, I received training from the most war-experienced and respected operators in the world. I even had a Mountain Leader running our training in Norway who'd taken part in recce's during the Falklands conflict.

For anyone in our world, the ongoing effects of war are visible and accepted. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll tell you now - some lads are never the same. Lots of stuff is swept under the rug and most just crack on as we've always done. Throughout my time in the Royal Marines, a phrase has stuck with me, it's a principle that's embedded in us from week one, day one. As a recruit, a corporal would always say, if you've got nothing to do then ask yourself this question "How can I square away the lads?". Basically, how can I chip in and help others out? We are all together working toward the same goal at the end of the day, so let's get there efficiently, fast.

Then an opportunity came up from our American counterparts over at the Heroic Hearts Project, to participate in a charity event originally created by David Goggins called the 4X4X48 Challenge. A conglomerate of US Veteran charities on the cutting edge of mental health treatments headed by the Warrior Angels Foundation organised the event in Texas. By now I was living in Costa Rica, really taking a deep dive into networking and learning as much as I could about the subject. After expressing my interest, all of those involved gave me the green light to participate from here in Central America, and the best bit about it is, this challenge coincided with HHPUK's build-up to facilitating for 9 UK veterans to attend their first Ayahuasca retreat in Peru. The funds I'd generate would go directly to that trip. Perfect!

I decided to spice up the challenge a little. Instead of running the same 4-mile route 12 times over the course of 48 hours, I got dropped off 48 miles away from my home with a bergen full of water and supplies and began speed yomping (ruck marching with some running) 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours, whilst resting on the side of the road. In the daytime, the temperatures soared past 35 degrees, and in the nighttime, my concerns switched to packs of dogs and fire ant colonies swarming all over my pack and food.

I did not account for the number of isolated properties that had guard dogs, not on a leash. The majority of the properties with dogs had a fence around them that contained the angry canines doing their job. But occasionally I'd come across a fence that was so worn and torn that the dogs could squeeze through the gaps and have open access to me. It's a daunting feeling walking past a house in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch black, and seeing a pack of dogs growling and barking, each taking turns to squeeze through a hole before sprinting forward. On the second night, my leg was covered in drool from one of these god damn Costa Rican standoffs! Luckily their owners would run outside and calm them down before apologising, and I too apologised for disturbing their evening. I had some funny looks on this journey; lots of smiles, free mangos, and welcoming gestures but I was unquestionably a bizarre sight in their little towns.

It was a tough challenge but I enjoyed the test plus I got to sleep under the stars in a place with minimal light pollution once again. On one 3 hour rest stop I saw 3 shooting stars and I'd only ever seen 2 before in my whole lifetime. Luckily I didn't see any snakes, jaguars, or crocs either!

On the second day, I reached the finish line, my family were waiting at our local beach with a fresh coconut and a beer. I crossed the finish with the familiar feeling of blisters, sleep deprivation, and chaffing where the sun doesn't shine. I jumped in the sea and immediately got a reminder of what was sore. But overall it felt good to get off my arse and do something for a cause I believe in and still do a bit to square away the lads. I managed to raise a good amount of money to go directly to the upcoming retreat too.

I do a lot on social media these days. I now rely on it for income and I have a relatively small but very loyal following. At the beginning of my ambassadorship with the Heroic Hearts Project, I posted content explaining what they do and why it was important to me. Most people were accepting but there was still a notable decline in followers after every mention of psychedelic-assisted therapy. A few guys made comments that showed they weren't on board with this stuff. Funnily enough two of those same guys actually donated to my challenge later down the line, most likely having gone away and read a little about this topic. Perhaps that's where you are now? Perhaps you know more than me? Either way, conversations with our peers and families about these treatments will really help those who need access to them in the coming years. Ambassadors are essentially strong voices speaking up and generating attention toward a topic. In the future, psychedelic-assisted therapies for veteran mental health will need relatable and strong voices advocating to allow widespread acceptance in our community. There will come a time when lads are discussing it at the pub and all it takes is a supporting comment and some backup dialogue to let others know it's no longer considered woo-woo taboo. Let's help square away the lads.

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