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Veterans in Pittsburgh say they are finding relief in psychedelics

Veterans say they are finding relief in psychedelics
Veterans say they are finding relief in psychedelics 04:49

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Adam Zaffuto came home to Pittsburgh after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the wars and their emotional scars came back with him. 

They came back even as he pursued a new life and a degree at Duquesne University.   

"Walking out of classes at Duquesne and starting to do scans for snipers like we would in Iraq. Sounds reverberate in a city like a car backfiring or a garbage truck dropping a dumpster sounds in the city exactly like a mortar round landing, and that would cause these startle responses in me and those are the key highlights of combat PTSD," he said. 

Post-traumatic stress, reliving the horrors of combat, losing friends to exploding IEDs and firefights, walking through hidden dangers at every step. Newly married himself and soon to be the father of a baby girl, Zaffuto continued living in that world and in need of help, the kind the Veterans Administration could not or would not provide.

"I didn't have six years of counseling to solve this. I need to be there for my wife. I need to be here for my daughter. I need to be here now," Zaffuto said.

Zaffuto says he found the breakthrough he was looking for from an unlikely source. Traveling to California, where psychedelic drugs have been decriminalized, he enrolled in a program involving the drug MDMA — which he says allowed him to face and accept his trauma. 

"I was as able to forgive myself, fully and totally forgive myself, for actions over there, things that I did, things that I saw," he said. "It was like 10 years of therapy in four hours. I was able to feel all of this trauma, all this all of this anxiety, all of this depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms just wash away." 

Psychedelics — LSD, MDMA, magic mushrooms containing the agent psilocybin —  conjure images of San Francisco hippies in the 1960s tripping in Golden Gate Park or horror stories about people losing their minds and doing crazy things. However, in recent studies and controlled clinical trials, psychedelics have been shown to help people with severe depression and give peace and perspective to people with terminal illnesses. 

Now, a growing number of veterans say the drugs have helped them resolve their PTSD. But because they're designated as illegal Schedule 1 drugs, research has been limited and the Veterans Administration is prohibited from administering them. 

Local Congressman and Naval veteran Chris Deluzio says that could change. 

"If there are new therapies, psychedelics, whatever it is that can help folks and are safe, I think we ought to be aggressively exploring how we can test those therapies and make them available to my fellow veterans," Deluzio said. 

As a member of the House Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees, Deluzio is in support of bipartisan bills to loosen the prohibitions on research and potentially pave the way for the VA to begin administering the drugs. But for now, veterans are on their own. 

"Just because a government agency says it's illegal, that doesn't mean that it's wrong, doesn't mean it is not the answer for you," Zaffuto said. "For me, whether it was legal, illegal, I didn't care. I wanted the treatment that was going to heal me." 

Today, he is a doting father to his little girl, Stella, and happily married to his wife and jiu-jitsu partner, Alex Pursglove, who attributes his dramatic recovery to the psychedelic therapy. 

"He's so much more at peace," Pursglove said. "And so then he brings that into our marriage and home. And he's connected with our daughter. He's fun and loving and just the best dad ever," she said. 

And Zaffuto is now on another mission — trying to make that available to his fellow vets. 

"For me, I've lost countless," Zaffuto said. "You stop counting when you run out of fingers and toes, how many guys you've lost to overdoses, to suicides. And for me, I ask myself how many of my brothers would still be here if they had access to these treatments."  

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