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In the latest episode of Call Me Cannabinoids, we sat down with Sgt. Brett D’Alessandro and Alexa Modero of Integrity One Alternative Care and Backpacks for Life.

Alexa and Brett, the President and Vice President of Integrity One, respectively, are passionate about helping veterans in crisis to recover from PTSD and transition out of homelessness. Their journey began with their nonprofit organization, Backpacks for Life.

“We coach and mentor homeless veterans, and we start by giving them a backpack filled with supplies, toiletries, and resources,” Brett says. “And this is a backpack that we totally engineered to help veterans survive and get off the street.”

Backpacks for Life is born

Brett, a former Marine, served for six years and was deployed with his unit to Afghanistan in 2017, where he was a machine gunner. When he returned, he had difficulty making the transition back into civilian life and felt like he’d lost his purpose.

While on medical hold in Rhode Island, Brett was on his way to a doctor’s appointment when he encountered a homeless veteran. He returned to his motel, filled a backpack with warm layers and gave it to the man.

“About three days later, I saw him again, and he was with a little boy,” Brett says. “I pulled over to the side of the road, and before I could get a word out, the little boy said, ‘Thank you so much for the backpack. I no longer have to go to school carrying my books in my hands.’”

The dad went on to explain that the warm layers were keeping his wife warm at the homeless shelter, and the experience sparked an idea for Brett.

He called Alexa and proposed the idea that they begin coaching veterans, connecting them to resources, and helping them to transition out of homelessness. That’s how Backpacks for Life was born.

Brett says the backpacks, which are filled with daily essentials, are a veterans’ first line of defense. He, Alexa, and their team take their support further than just backpacks, seeing veterans and their families through various stages of recovery.

“We’re able to work with not only veterans but veterans’ spouses who feel like they might be lost in supporting their veteran,” Alexa says. “And I think that has allowed us to get to the point where we are today because we can see both sides of the coin and the whole situation.”

A holistic approach to recovery for veterans

Brett and Alexa set their sights on developing a holistic approach to recovery for the veterans they encountered.

“The veterans we work with don’t realize there are so many alternative healing modalities. Maybe for some, medication is what’s needed, but for others, there are therapies like equine therapy, flotation therapy, recreational hiking groups, fishing groups,” Alexa says.

“Maybe that’s just what they need to get themselves in a better place and on a path towards self-sufficiency.”

Brett, himself, went through a time period when he was taking seven to eight prescription medications at once. He felt like he was surviving, rather than thriving, and he didn’t want to continue living that way.

While on the medications, he said his options felt like “it was either suffer and feel it full-force, or get numbed down by these medications and not feel at all. I felt like there had to be something else.”

Brett began exploring holistic, natural recovery methods, including simple habits like meditation and cutting caffeine from his diet. As he explored a broad spectrum of holistic therapies for himself and the veterans he was helping, he came across cannabis as a possible healing modality.

“Medical cannabis was a part of my recovery,” he says, “but I was very skeptical.”

Brett was nervous about how he would respond to cannabis, particularly because of the stigma surrounding it. Still, he visited a doctor who recommended it to address the symptoms of PTSD and anxiety. That experience, as well as his first visit to a dispensary, shattered the stereotypes around cannabis for him.

“Cannabis has been really, really amazing stuff,” he says. “I’ve gotten back to who I am.”

Guiding New Jersey veterans to the proper cannabis channels

Currently, the VA can’t prescribe medical cannabis, and it’s not covered by insurance. So veterans who want access to it must pay out of pocket–an expense many can’t afford. Integrity One aims to help veterans who live below the poverty line get access to their medical card so they can experience the healing benefits of cannabis for themselves.

“We’re trying to push the envelope and make social impact the forefront of the business,” says Brett.

Because they’re a nonprofit and because medical cannabis is still federally illegal, there’s little Brett’s team can do in terms of helping veterans get access–but they are educating them and assisting them with entering New Jersey’s medical cannabis program. They act in full compliance with all state and federal regulations as the cannabis industry expands and evolves.

The path from Backpacks for Life to Integrity One has been a rewarding one for Brett and Alexa, as well as the individuals and families they have been able to assist.

“When we hear from veterans who are succeeding and doing better–who found permanent housing, who found a better job, who are in recovery–it just makes it all worthwhile,” he says.