For Jon Lubecky, the scars on his wrists are a reminder of the years he spent in mental purgatory.
He returned from an Army deployment in Iraq a broken man. He heard mortar shells and helicopters where there were none. He couldn't sleep and drank until he passed out. He got every treatment offered by Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder. But they didn't stop him from trying to kill himself — five times.
Finally, he signed up for an experimental therapy and was given a little green capsule. The anguish stopped.
Inside that pill was a compound named MDMA, better known by dealers and rave partygoers as ecstasy. That street drug is emerging as the most promising tool to come along in years for the military's escalating PTSD epidemic.
The MDMA program was created by a small group of psychedelic researchers who had toiled for years in the face of ridicule, funding shortages and skepticism. But the results have been so positive that this month the Food and Drug Administration deemed it a "breakthrough therapy" — setting it on a fast track for review and potential approval.
The prospect of a government-sanctioned psychedelic drug has generated both excitement and concern. And it has opened the door to scientists studying new uses for other illegal psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (commonly known as magic mushrooms).
"We're in this odd situation where one of the most promising therapies also happens to be a Schedule 1 substance banned by the [Drug Enforcement Administration]," said retired Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, who until 2010 was the highest ranking psychiatrist in the U.S. Army.
Because of the stigma attached to psychedelics since the trippy 1960s, many military and government leaders still hesitate to embrace them. Some scientists are also wary of the nonprofit spearheading ecstasy therapy, a group with the stated goal of making the banned drugs part of mainstream culture.
But the scope and severity of PTSD makes it all irrelevant, said Sutton, who now works as New York City's commissioner of veteran services. "If this is something that could really save lives, we need to run and not walk toward it. We need to follow the data."