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A Warrior Poet: Healing through Writing, Companionship, and Ayahuasca

Emilio’s life took a harrowing turn in 2008 while serving as a Marine in Iraq. Although he served for 11 years, one particular moment during this deployment took him furthest from his son and daughter back home. The trajectory of his life would be altered forever when an IED detonated under the vehicle he was driving, leaving him with severe physical and emotional wounds.

Debilitating PTSD became Emilio’s unwelcome partner upon his return from Iraq, casting a long shadow over his daily existence. Anxiety was a relentless force, making each day a new battlefield of its own. Back home, he felt isolated from the camaraderie of his fellow Marines, and a feeling of disconnection from the life he once knew became palpable, which intensified the challenges he faced.

“Returning from Iraq, my PTSD controlled me heavily,” he describes, reflecting on the overwhelming grip of the downturn his mental health had taken. “I felt like I couldn’t pull myself out of the PTSD spirals. I was self-coping with drinking and unhealthy relationship behavior.” 

Despite numerous attempts at traditional therapies, including exposure therapy, prescription pharmaceuticals, and recommendations for intensive inpatient treatment, Emilio found himself grappling with the symptoms rather than addressing the root cause. These efforts, at best, masked the surface-level issues and, at worst, led to serious adverse reactions, such as alopecia areata, a condition where the immune system attacks hair follicles and causes hair loss.

Isolated and burdened by the weight of his experiences, Emilio faced extreme difficulty talking about his time in Iraq. For years, he struggled to communicate about his experience with his children, parents, and friends. The discomfort and guilt stemming from his inability to be honest and vulnerable added another layer to the complexities of his post-war existence.

During the torrents of his PTSD, Emilio found a life raft in an unexpected form: poetry. Writing became his profound form of connection and expression, a sanctuary where he could process emotions in a way that traditional therapy failed to provide.  Emilio discovered that poetry offered him a unique and healthy outlet, allowing him to navigate the storm within. In his own words, he reflects on the transformative power of poetry: “It saved my life, it gave me somewhere to put these emotions and feelings productively instead of drinking until I passed out.”

Beyond being a personal lifeline, Emilio recognizes that poetry has a universal quality that bridges the gap between shared human experiences. The difficulty of sharing experiences as a veteran, where few can truly comprehend the depth of those shared moments, finds consolation in the written word. “Poetry allows for connection through shared emotion,” Emilio articulates this sentiment, “because even though you may not have had the same experience as me, we all experience the same emotions.” Through the rhythmic cadence of his verses, Emilio found not only a form of self-therapy but a way to connect with others on a profound emotional level. Poetry helped him to transcend the boundaries of his individual experiences and foster a sense of shared humanity.

Another significant influence on Emilio’s healing journey was the connection he found with a four-legged companion named Samson, his service dog. Their relationship acted as a mirror, reflecting shared experiences of trauma, albeit in different forms. It reminded Emilio that he was not alone and gave him the opportunity to experience unconditional love. This extraordinary bond forged between man and dog would become Emilio’s “gateway” to an overwhelming world.  His journey with Samson helped lay the foundation for Emilio to build relationships in the way he had been longing to and reminded him that he is worthy of love and connection. 

Yet even with these tools at hand, Emilio sensed there was something that could further deepen his path to healing. Introduced to the idea of plant medicine by a friend who recognized its potential benefits for combat veterans, Emilio embarked on an ayahuasca retreat in Peru after discovering Heroic Hearts Project through social media.

This retreat proved to be one of the most defining moments in Emilio’s life. It became a lesson in the profound importance of self-healing. After a lifetime of prioritizing others, the plant medicine journey imparted a crucial revelation: to be the best for others, one must first prioritize oneself. Emilio emerged from the experience with a resolute goal, stating, “I’m trying to be the best self-healer I can be, and if I want to show my loved ones the best way to love me, I need to be honest and vulnerable.”

HHP played a pivotal role in Emilio’s transformative journey, guiding him to “learn to live comfortably in my vulnerability, pain, and loss,”  a feat he struggled to achieve for many years after his IED incident.

Crucial to the long-term healing process, HHP emphasized preparation, integration, and community support before, during, and after the ayahuasca experience. Emilio underscores the significance of this approach, noting that it creates a safe container for vulnerability. “As vets, it’s sometimes difficult to talk about your experiences,” Emilio explains. “The HHP community is special because you don’t have to be superficial, like many veterans find themselves being with friends and family. With the HHP family, you can be honest and vulnerable, which, for me, has created a lot of common ground with both veterans and civilians.”

The bonds formed during a retreat are likened to the intense emotional connections experienced during deployments. Emilio emphasizes, “Retreats are similar to a deployment in an emotional sense because you build such close bonds with your cohort through intense emotional experiences that you won’t find anywhere else.”

Returning from his journey to Peru, Emilio was met with a profound moment of connection. His son expressed pride in Emilio’s commitment to self-healing. Reflecting on this newfound emotional depth, Emilio states, “If I would have given in to those controlling negative PTSD spirals of life 15 years ago, I may not have lived to hear my son tell me that he is proud of me.

Emilio’s journey from the depths of PTSD to a place of profound healing stands as a testament to his human spirit. His journey showcases the transformative powers of creative expression, companionship, and alternative therapies in the pursuit of healing. For Emilio, the titles of warrior and poet are not mutually exclusive.

Written By: Tom Mulhern
Former Marine Corps Artillery Officer

“Who is the Director of Dreams” by Emilio Gallegos

(After Joan Didion)

I’m singing again

and it’s stronger

my song

sounds like trumpets rumbling in the summer

speaking in simpler terms

there’s a dragon inside of me

and he’s done

worrying about what the right way home might be

which is to say

one more day

is all I’m asking you to digest with me

and we’ll see what the world brings to us

when tomorrow comes

we might whisper thank yous into the same wind

and I’d hold close to those moments of us growing


under the same sun

We’ve only just begun my dog will say out loud

whenever he smells me starting to doubt my own success

We’re all we have left I’ll say back

seconds before we melt together

in the silence of a pitch-black room

telling someone you love about the toughest part of your day

isn’t the simplest thing to do

and when I’m rambling on about one thought that’s keeping me from sleeping

know that there are at least two

that I’m willing to talk about

and isn’t it about time we start celebrating our failures together

and clinking glasses in the rain

what I’m saying in the most delicate of ways

is that I’d probably die without you

or at least find myself   forgetting to breathe

is easy

when you’re listening with the wrong heart

parts of your life will always stay dark

even on your brightest days

there are a hundred and one ways to feel betrayed by your own emotions

and I’m out here checking boxes in an ocean of choppy waves

saving the best parts of me for I don’t know what

and boy are my arms tired

of always trying to get away

from what my predictive brain is saying

if I was a religious man

I’d probably whisper “I’m praying for a message to break through”

but I found answers in Peru

doing no pleading at all

and it was beautiful

falling into the arms of something that truly loves you

and feeling empowered by the breath of someone you trust

fixing what I once broke

won’t keep me from choking

on unconstructive coping mechanisms

but trying to put my finger on the root of the trauma

will help me properly place the commas in all of my greetings

and I will be needing you

to point out the moon

sometime soon

so won’t you stay awhile

to swallow all these falling trees with me