Editor’s Note: SOFREP invites our readers to submit editorials for publication. Today, we bring you this essay by Dominique L. Plewes who is the founder and Chairperson of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) Foundation regarding veterans and their physical and emotional health. We share her concern that as the Global War on Terror moves into the shadow of a mostly clandestine conflict without large deployed units overseas, America’s commitment to caring for its servicemembers and veterans may wane.


Last week on Veterans Day, Americans had an opportunity to reflect on the end of the war in Afghanistan and show their appreciation for the sacrifice of the men and women who fought the nation’s battles. Veterans and servicemembers, along with their families, grapple with a variety of emotions and unseen trauma. While some of these traumas are being discoursed, one threat to servicemembers receives far less attention: the use of dangerous, experimental treatments for mental illnesses.

Veterans and the general public have recently been more outspoken on mental health topics, possibly due to the rise in alarming trends within the military and veteran community or because of shortfalls in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) responses to these wounds becoming more apparent. This is especially true for active duty and veterans of special operations units. They have borne a significant burden over the last 20 years of war. Because of their mental scars and the lack of institutional support, some have turned in desperation to unproven, experimental treatment methods that have only compounded their problems.

Last year, the suicide rate for the active force was at an all-time high, drastically increasing since 2015. Among veterans, suicide rates are approximately 2.5 times that of the general population. From 2017 to 2018, the suicide rate within U.S. Special Operations Command tripled. Active duty and veterans are also twice as likely to have PTSD as civilians, and “more than half of veterans who need mental health treatments don’t receive them.”

As these problems have grown, the military health care system has not kept up. It is unable to respond quickly and precisely to active duty and veteran mental health needs, driving some to turn to unproven treatments. Generally, there is still a large cultural stigma related to mental health issues. Servicemembers fear that seeking help will negatively affect their careers or that they risk reprisal from peers or leadership. For active-duty members that do seek treatment at military facilities, the right resources are often lacking. Long-term mental health recovery is a personal process that requires time and trust. This is hard to sustain when military members, which include medical providers, consistently move. While there are other resources, such as military and family life counselors or chaplains, they are often over-extended or are not trained mental health professionals.

The issues within the military mental health ecosystem have created gaps that members of the private sector have begun to fill. While taking a trip to a Mexican ibogaine clinic may be unheard of for some, it is just one of many experimental treatments that private organizations, outside of DoD or VA purview, have offered to members of the special operations community attempting to deal with their mental health struggles. Along with ibogaine, options have included other psychedelics, including ayahuasca and psilocybin (i.e., magic mushrooms), along with brain stimulations (i.e., brain zapping). These “treatments” supposedly cure depression, addiction, and/or PTSD, but are unregulated and amount to uncontrolled experiments on servicemembers. Their side-effects include permanent psychosis, severe anxiety, problems with military regulations, and fractured families. While research into many of these treatments is currently underway, more is needed before they are proven to be reliably effective.

Servicemembers, veterans, and the public should be careful with these unproven trends. They are reminiscent of failed mental health experiments seen throughout history. Lobotomies were frequently used throughout the 1940s, and Metrazol (a form of shock therapy) was on the market for nearly 50 years until the FDA revoked approval in 1982. These practices are now acknowledged as inhumane and unsafe, but they were lauded for their effectiveness at the time by advocates who shared awe-inspiring anecdotes and success stories. Similarly, things like “brain zapping” and psychedelics are extolled as successful by some, while lacking the necessary supportive research, putting those who put their faith in these efforts at serious risk.