Keeping veterans out of the ‘black hole’

Marine Corps veteran Juliana Mercer discusses her work to support veterans, using psychedelic therapies for PTSD symptoms and more as this month’s guest on The American Legion’s Be the One podcast. Through this series, The American Legion aims to continue to raise awareness about its mission to reduce the rate of veteran suicide through Be the One.

Throughout her 16-year military career, Mercer served in and out of war zones, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. She also spent four years providing holistic support to injured Marines recovering at the Wounded Warrior Battalion in San Diego. Her initial role was to determine what the injured Marines needed in terms of support services and make that connection. Later, she would “do everything holistic, non-medical, to take care of them and help them figure out how to live their lives post-injury.” 

That experience helped her discover her passion and also transition into the nonprofit space after her service. 

“My intent is to help veterans thrive post-military so they wouldn’t fall into a black hole, a place where they are lacking a purpose and are more prone to feeling alone, and ending up a statistic,” said Mercer, a member of American Legion Post 426 in Lakeside, Mont. 

She focused on the employment aspect, striving to get veterans into good careers.  

“Anything and everything we could throw at the problem, we decided we’re going to try it,” she said, noting the escalating rate of veteran suicide. “The pain of losing too many brothers and sisters became too much and I found myself in that black hole in a place where — while I was doing really purposeful work — I no longer felt like I had purpose.” 

Mercer reached out to get herself some help, eventually finding relief through psychedelic therapy that fundamentally changed her life.  

“I had an experience with psychedelics that helped me almost overnight to have a success from 20 years of collected trauma and grief,” she explained. “I let that pain go through me instead of keeping it inside of me. I no longer felt that weight of everything stuck inside of me.” 

That experience led her to dedicate her time and energy to ensuring that veterans who suffer from complex, chronic PTSD also have access to these therapies. In her current role as director of Veteran Advocacy & Public Policy for the nonprofit organization Healing Breakthrough, Mercer advocates for the research, training, and deployment of system-wide adoption of MDMA-assisted therapy in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The therapy, “a medication in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy,” is on the path toward FDA approval. She says one to three treatments shows a 71% reduction in PTSD. 

“This treatment is the light at the end of the tunnel that is scientifically proven that is going to start saving veterans’ lives,” she said.  

This episode is the seventh in the Be the One series. The others:

Part one: Marine Corps veteran Waco Hoover, who oversees the Be the One strategy, talks about its next phase. “We’re doing an extensive amount of research and also looking for suggestions from our community about who we should be aligned with,” he said. “We have to have a conversation about this issue, this topic.”

Part two: Air Force veteran Dr. Regan Stiegmann discusses how lifestyle medicine can play a role in the reduction of veterans who die by suicide.

Part three: Dr. Ruth Moore is a survivor of suicide, which she attempted after leaving the Navy in 1987 following Military Sexual Trauma assaults. After earning her Ph.D. in Mind-Body Medicine, she now helps veterans and others dealing with trauma and related issues.

Part four: Former Army Apache helicopter pilot Adam Marr, a member of American Legion Post 12 in Dothan, Ala., shares how he has helped organize, operationalize and advocate for innovative solutions to the veteran mental health and suicide crisis since 2015.

Part five: Former Navy SEAL Marcus Capone found relief in psychedelics for his post-service transition issues after a “downward spiral” of seven years. Now, Marcus and his wife, Amber, are helping other veterans facing similar struggles.

Part six: Marine Corps veteran Tim Jensen recalls his military service, downward spiral and connecting with Grunt Style that led him on a path to healing.

There are more than 230 Tango Alpha Lima episodes for veterans, servicemembers and others.

The next Be the One episode will drop April 1. All episodes are available in both audio and video formats here as well as on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and other major podcast-hosting sites. The video version is available at the Legion’s YouTube channel