On August 31, 2022, William Wisner provided the following testimony to the Missouri House of Representatives Interim Committee on Veterans Mental Health & Suicide Prevention. You can meet William at our Nov. 19th Conference at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
My name is William Wisner and I am the Executive Director of the Grunt Style Foundation, a 501c3 serving active duty military, guard & reserves as well as Veterans.
I’d like to talk to you today about what I consider the single most important issue that we engage in with our veteran community and that is the issue of mental health and wellness and veteran suicide.
I’m sure you have heard the statistic of 22 veterans a day taking their own lives. This problem is very real and it is the culmination of a tragic chain of events that often starts during the wartime experience but almost always ends after service. For many, it is the unnecessary final mission in a war that followed us home.
To shed some light on this issue, I’d like to tell you about my own experience with the struggles that I’ve dealt with. I deployed to Iraq in March of 2007 as part of the infamous “Surge” during the height of the war, with the 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Heavy Combat Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division out of Ft. Benning GA. I was part of the 3rd Brigade’s Time Sensitive Target Team operating out of Combat Outpost Cashe near the southeastern part of Baghdad. My unit conducted dozens of kinetic raids in Area of Operation “Blackhawk.” We were focused primarily on what the military calls High Value Individuals in accordance with the counter insurgency COIN doctrine that drove the strategy of how we carried out operations during that time of the war. Our mission was to Kill or Capture the leadership of both Shiite Jesh Al-Madi and Sunni Al-Queda militants within our battle space.
I served as a 19D Cavalry Scout and was not some special forces operator. I was a conventional combat arms cavalryman that was assigned to this special platoon out of necessity. Mission tempo was intense during the early days of the Surge and our special forces operators were unable to handle the sheer volume of business that needed to be handled. Their numbers are small and the stress from these sorts of missions was intense. 3 month tours were the average length of time deployed for these types of forces given the mental strain associated with this type of work. My unit was there and active for 15 months. It was not unusual to conduct these types of raids 2 or 3 times a night as many operations produced immediate follow on actions out of necessity and urgency. My small 22 man platoon suffered 2 KIA and 3 significant WIA casualties. Most of us experienced the expected dings and scratches that you rack up along the way.
Upon returning to the United States after my tour, I separated out of the military and started life as a civilian. My experience as a newly minted “veteran” was not too different from that of my brothers and sisters that also returned home after such an adventure and set loose into the real world with little preparation of how to make this new phase of life work. I experienced depression and a longing for the sense of familiarity and purpose that goes along with being part of the active warfighter community. I experienced mind-bending nightmares that were essentially living days of my deployment that never actually happened, but could have on top of occasionally revisiting the worst days that actually did. In these dreams, I’d experience waking up and going to our truck line to fill our radios and conduct pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections. I’d receive a mission brief from my platoon leader and then distribute that information down to my joes. I’d experience the tension and stress of rolling back out of the wire, praying for my family back home and making my peace with God just in case I didn’t roll back in after it was over. Some days of this alternate dream deployment were simple. Rolling along in a patrol for 8 hours, having the types of silly conversations and jokes that you have your crew that you had in those situations. Some days my dreams would take me into everything from IED blasts where we’d have to load friends into body bags to days where we would once again stalk our prey in their own homes, ready to deliver my country’s justice and often times, vengeance. This continued for years. I
dreaded going to sleep. It got to the point where I began to question which days activity was real and which was the dream. The truth of that question didn’t actually matter as your reality is that which you experience. My 15 month deployment stretched out into almost ten years, night after night.
I engaged with my local VA hospital and I engaged the therapies offered me there. I sat in groups of other veterans led by mental health processionals sharing stories and looking for a solution of how to let this all go. Their stories weren’t my story. Even though we all shared the same war, we did not share the same experience. All of us had our own traumas. One thing was almost always for sure though, while I would occasionally connect with another veteran in the group and I could understand them and they could understand me, usually the group leader, the professional “helping” us could not. It became part of my resentment.
The pills the VA provides for people like me are what we in the veteran community refer to as Zombie dope. The side-effects of these pills usually contribute to your problems. Some of these pills can make you miss entire days sometimes as you drift into some odd third reality, apart from the real world waking hours and the nighttime return to a mission that won’t end. This third reality of pills is one of fog and haze and confusion. It impacts how you work. How you engage in your family, with your children and your spouse. It is difficult to hold down a job and navigate a marriage in that type of reality. Your job, your wife and your kids all become just more casualties in your on-going and never ending war. At some point, it just makes sense to step up to that one final action. It’s a mercy to you and a mercy for those around you. And so it is that 22 veterans a day go down this road. The path that led them there don’t always look like mine, but whatever it is that haunts them is more than sufficient to have brought them to that point. The sad reality is that it appears that, as often as not, it is the very people within the system trying to provide help are the ones who somehow seem to make it worse. For all the effort from the VA, the commercials, the veteran hotlines where you can talk to someone, the opportunity to connect back into a sense of community one therapy session at a time… it’s basically just talk and good intentions. And then there is everyone else. The grateful nation thanking you for your service with a free meal a couple of times a year while pitying you for having to have sold yourself into military service because it was the best option you had to get out of whatever situation you came from, it gets to be a bit much and even those little acts of kindness become part of the problem.
Somewhere around 2015 I heard about this mysterious tea that veterans were taking in the jungles of South America with shamans that could miraculously change the game. I was intrigued and began looking for information. I was willing to try anything. I connected with a few veteran friends that had made the trip south or had found an underground circuit doing this kind of work in the shadows and I listened in disbelief to their testimony of how they had managed to lay down their burdens by sitting in a ceremony where they saved themselves by finding themselves. In this ceremony they were able to face their own darkness and then follow a light out of that place only to discover that the light they were moving toward was actually their own soul. Although skeptical, I wanted that and was willing to take that step onto that path if there was even a remote chance that it could do what I hoped that it could.
I finally connected with this medicine, this sacrament, whatever you want to call it, not too long after that and what I found was frankly nothing less than miraculous. I sat in a room full of other people looking for answers and for help. Some of these people were every bit as broken as I was, some were there because it had become a spiritual practice for them as they continued to weed the garden of their own souls and become better, kinder, more loving, empathetic people who had figured out that the process of healing is a never-ending process of coming full circle again and again and again. I knew then and there that I wanted what this second category of people had found. I got it. In one evening I
released the source of what had haunted me for ten years and I put it to rest. It wasn’t an easy process, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced, but I faced my dark and I did find my soul. I was liberated and I knew that I had an obligation for the rest of my life to be part of this work by sharing my story and leading other veterans to this same opportunity for them to do their own work.
In the end, I found that this practice is one of looking over and getting past our own ego, that protective wall that we build to ensure whatever has hurt us in the past cannot do so again. This wall is pretty effective at doing that, but just like the pills the VA gives us, there are destructive side effects of having a protective ego. Eventually that ego becomes more than a protective shell and it becomes a pressure cooker. Cracks develop and it is through these cracks that our PTSD escapes. This special psychedelic tea, Ayahausca, allows you to destroy the negative aspects of that wall and it can do it in a single night. It can feel like you are going to war with yourself, which is more or less what we are doing as we confront that ego and it refuses to die. It is every bit as strong as you are and it becomes a battle of wills, both of which are your own.
What I found is that these shamans are actually saintly guides holding space while you learn the lesson of not going to war with your ego, but rather surrendering to the fact that while it has served you by protecting you, it no longer does so, and now that we know what that is, we can let what is behind it go. Once we let go of the fear that keeps us behind that wall, the truth will appear. It is so simple and so clear but it takes something more than ourselves to arrive at this understanding. These wonderful, incredible plants, designed and given to us by our creator do that and they do it in ways that no man-made and corrupted copy can even come close to doing.
Our foundation is focused on providing solutions that can save or improve lives today. Not tomorrow, not some years later after all the science has been done to try to understand something that frankly, will probably never fully happen. Man has tried since the beginning of time to understand the nature of God and the divine. We’ve explained what we understand that to be in thousands and thousands of ways. We’ve tried our best to put into words what can’t be fully captured and we’ve tried to replicate the wonder of God with pills and scientific practices. Maybe we will get to a point someday where we are able to do that. Understand God, understand what it is that allows these plants to do what they do, but it’s as true today as it’s been for thousands of years, that part isn’t necessary to access the healing today. Veterans are dying today. They don’t have to.
I’ve been told that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. I’ve come to realize that it’s not God laughing, it’s the Devil. We stand in our own way through our own hubris and arrogance and there are those among us who understand this. If I have to raise money and send every veteran I can find to a country where they can sit with this incredible solution, I’m going to do that. My oath to my countrymen did not come with an expiration date and my resolve is strong. We could accomplish so much more - so much faster - with your support and willingness to stand with those of us who already know.
I am grateful for this opportunity to share with you that which I have been so privileged to have learned. I hope my testimony is somehow helpful to you and I look forward to continuing this work with you as a partner is this incredible work. Thank you.