Heal the Veteran, Heal the World

Forty-one year-old US military veteran Matthew Kahl takes seriously his values and genuinely lives by principles that are easy to espouse but hard to engender: liberty, humanity, and responsibility. These convictions are what led him to enlist and they are also what saved him from untenable suffering following his time at war.

At age 29, Matthew Kahl enlisted in the 101st Airborne Infantry division of the United States Army. It was March 2007. Matt was a new father and he viewed enlisting as another step, albeit a bold one, in his lifelong journey towards personal growth. He was excited to launch himself into this new challenge and to “really fight” for the values he had always treasured, chief among them, freedom.

At the start of his nearly five-year military career, Matt was full of promise, discipline, and inspiration. The reality of war, he would soon learn, was much more sinister, and its scars, much more damaging.

Matt was a model soldier in the beginning. He achieved the highest possible score (99) on the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) and was enrolled in intense courses where he learned everything from specialized equipment to dedicated calculations unique to the armed services.

Among the other lessons he learned in the military were how to dehumanize “the enemy” – Afghanistan and Afghanis in Matt’s case – and how to cope with the atrocities of war. “The military’s goal is to break you down, to build you back up in the image of a warrior. A killer, really.” In battle, this method is menacing, but effective. When a soldier returns home, in the absence of the threat of combat and without proper coping mechanisms for daily life, it is just menacing.

During his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2008, Matt was quickly disavowed of the notion that he was there to defend and protect the liberty boasted by the US Constitution. In fact, he says, he was there “to kick down doors, blow shit up, and kill people.”

He saw death all around him – in the killing of civilians and in his friends who became casualties of war. His military coping mechanisms kicked in – sort of – and he kept himself, and others alive, though he suffered innumerable minor traumatic brain injuries that piled one upon the other, in doing so.

But his humanity was not lost – he felt, and quickly suppressed, the pain of tragedy and loss. And his sense of responsibility did not falter – he was fiercely loyal and protective of his unit, insisting on a second deployment in 2010 to support his friends and fellow soldiers, even after having suffered trauma so severe that it culminated in his first suicide attempt in 2009 following his first return home.

During his second deployment, the injuries and death toll continued to rise. Among the count were more friends of Matt’s, including one permanently injured and another killed by an enemy sniper. Those casualties led to a mission during which Matt himself suffered his most severe traumatic brain injury. He was acting as a “gunner” when he was ejected from his fast-moving MRAP vehicle, his face and head crashing into the metal turret-shield and knocking him unconscious as his body flew through the air. He awoke some time later in the MRAP, still clutching his weapon, his face and uniform covered with his own blood, bone, and teeth. This left his brain so damaged that for a time, he was unable to speak or read.

He was ultimately transported by air ambulance to a hospital in Germany for treatment. But by then, the relentless violence was too much. Even as his body began to heal, Matt’s mental capacity suffered a harsh decline and he began to lose his grip on reality. He was no longer a model soldier. He was a mess. And he was a mess the military was unable, or unwilling, to repair.

By the time he was discharged in December 2011, Matt was laden with damage, both mental and physical. Severe PTSD coupled with numerous pharmaceuticals that were destroying his liver and further altering his fragile mental state left him depressed to the point of a second suicide attempt. He would spend the next several years so heavily medicated that he was unable to rejoin and participate in his life at home as a husband and father.

But still, he felt a sense of responsibility to his family, and finally, to himself. Through the haze of opioids and a jumble of other pharmaceuticals, he knew something had to give; he had to find a way to recover.

Recalling that early college experiences with cannabis and psychedelics had benefited him emotionally in other areas of his life, Matt began to consider the role cannabis could play in his recovery. Prescription drugs were not really working, so why not try something natural that had helped before?

In 2013, Matt made another bold move – this time to Colorado to become a medical marijuana patient. He promptly obtained his medical marijuana card, and began using cannabis. The positive impact was noticeable and it was immediate. Cannabis helped not only with pain management and cognitive issues, but also with combating the withdrawal effects from quitting opioids. With this new plant in his arsenal, Matt began insisting that his doctors agree to reduce and eventually remove the countless prescription medications from his regimen. He was off prescription medications within a year of rediscovering cannabis.

With a healthier and more effective method of pain management underway, Matt’s sense of hope was renewed and he decided to go deeper. He wanted to work on healing the root of his trauma and so he began psychedelic treatment for his PTSD in 2016.

His work with psychedelics began with an ayahuasca ceremony where he discovered the power of self-forgiveness. He describes his ayahuasca experiences as tremendous releases followed by intense love and an appreciation for beauty in all things and people. On discovering the ability to address his inner demons and find forgiveness for all of the suffering he had been party to, he explains, “everything had poured out of me, and I was an empty vessel and what poured back into me was love. Just love.”

So successful was Matt’s discovery of the healing power of psychedelics, that he continued the journey and over the years has participated in clinical trials for the treatment of PTSD with other naturally occurring psychedelic substances found in plants, like psilocybin mushrooms and ibogaine.

With his newfound healing, has come newfound obligation. Matt finds that he has a responsibility to heal himself, and a responsibility to those brothers and sisters he lost at war, American and Afghani alike, to live the best life he can live. “This is a message of personal responsibility. You can heal yourself.”

And so, Matt is fighting again, in his continued pursuit of liberty. This time the enemy is domestic, and his weapon is activism. Matt is the Founder and Executive Director of Veterans for Natural Rights, a social welfare and political action organization aimed at helping veterans restore their lives, purpose and sense of community.

But Matt’s advocacy is not limited to rights of veterans to heal through natural plant medicine. He knows better than most that the number one indicator of PTSD is childhood trauma, and trauma permeates all of society – it is not limited to the soldiers among us. “Veterans are the very visible crack in a society that has been broken by war”, Matt explains. He is quick to opine that untreated trauma is the cause of humanity’s pain that leads to suffering and acts of violence, including war. But, he is just as quick to point out that it is fixable. “PTSD is not a death sentence, and it’s not a life sentence either. It’s curable.” And the cure is growing all around us, in nature.

Matt sees psychedelics as a conduit to recovery and likens the treatment of trauma and what remains after treatment to a particular process of Japanese art in which a glass is broken and then put back together, the cracks sealed with gold: “the vessel is more beautiful for having had a history and having been broken.”

His ability to see the beauty in suffering, and to embrace natural methods of therapy and healing make Matthew Kahl a sound and credible advocate for not just veterans’ rights to plant medicine, but for humanity’s right to individual liberty and the pursuit of natural healing.

“As long as nature is illegal, no one is free in this country. We’re violating the very fabric of our nation by banning these substances. We are denying the intrinsic freedom of the individual which is what we were set up to protect.”

GoodCinema is excited to have Matt Kahl as a panelist for its upcoming event on Tuesday, March 26, including a screening of Neurons to Nirvana. Come meet Matt and learn about the role natural medicine can play in healing trauma!

- Laura Fischer

For more information about Matt Kahl and the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, check out these links: