“I saw two of my best friends blown apart,” says former U.S. Army Sergeant John Smith*. At the time, Smith had been serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan’s Laghman province. “When you see something like that, it stays with you for the rest of your life,” he says, describing an encounter his unit had while on a routine patrol near the Jalalabad-Kabul highway, where his they were ihit by an insurgent improvised explosive device (IED). During the attack, several members of the unit were killed in action. Two of them were among those he considered his best friends.

“These were guys I knew for years,” he says. “Their kids played with my kids. We knew each other’s parents. Losing these guys put a hole in me.” This event would be the catalyst that, years later, would lead Smith to look into using magic mushrooms for PTSD, something that is becoming increasingly common among veterans with combat-related mental health problems.

Smith would serve a little over ten years of active duty in the United States Army before being honorably discharged in 2019. After leaving the military, Smith says he started having significant mental health problems and was diagnosed with severe PTSD, chronic depression, and general anxiety disorder. According to Smith, he would wake up three or four times a week yelling in his sleep.

“Most weeks, I was lucky to sleep more than two hours at a time,” he says. “I was angry, shut down, and on edge 24/7.”

Smith describes this period of his life as “total chaos.” He found himself jobless, having difficulties with his marriage, and had developed a severe drinking habit. “I drank a lot. When I was upset, or we [him and his wife] would argue or to pass out.”

“After a few weeks, my mood was a little better, and I felt more interest in life in general. I still had really bad days.”

According to Smith, the care he was receiving via the Veterans Administration wasn’t that helpful.

“The medication they gave me helped with some of it, especially the nightmares,” he says. “But everything else was just dulled.” Smith had been prescribed Fluvoxamine (among other medications), a common SSRI antidepressant that can also be used to treat PTSD-associated nightmares. Unfortunately, while Smith got some relief from his nightmares and sleep problems, other issues stayed the same or, in some cases, worsened. “Since we lost them [his friends and squad mates], I sometimes had suicidal thoughts. I didn’t understand why they got hit, and I didn’t.” However, Smith says that his suicidal ideation began getting significantly worse once he left the military. Saying, “When you leave, you lose people, that feeling of belonging and camaraderie just isn’t there.”

When Smith left the military in 2019, he felt like he had lost his support network. Most veterans experience similar feelings when they leave the military, with some studies linking military separation with increased risk of suicidal ideation and depression. One study shows that up to 20% of veterans experience a heightened risk of suicide within a year of separation, accounting for 17.8% of suicide attempts nationwide. Of these, 30% are attributed to drug and alcohol use. Another study shows that slightly over 75% of combat veterans risk developing severe PTSD.(1, 2)

Smith feels that his medications dulled his emotions. Saying, “I didn’t really feel anything anymore.”

He says that his interest in spending time with his wife and children drastically dropped, and he would spend most of his time watching television. “I started to feel like a zombie,” he says. “I didn’t interact with anyone, I just reacted to what was going on around me or zoned out.”

Eventually, Smith says he tried to take his own life.

“I got to a place where I didn’t see the point anymore. I felt like I was ready to be done with my life. Sometimes part of me felt like it should have been me [in 2009].”

Fortunately, Smith’s suicide attempt was unsuccessful, and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. During his time there, Smith was stabilized, but he says ”I never felt like I was fixed.”

Magic mushrooms for PTSD
Vet looking to heal with Magic mushrooms

A Veteran Looking For New Ways to Heal

After Smith’s time in the hospital, he began looking for something different.

“When I got out of the hospital, it was almost like leaving the Army again,” he says. “I didn’t feel supported anymore. My wife tried, she’s the kindest person on earth, but she didn’t know what to do… I started looking into alternative medicine; cannabis helped with the anxiety, and I started trying to meditate.” Eventually, Smith became interested in learning more about psychedelics and how they may help with PTSD and depression. According to him, “A friend gave me How to Change Your Mind [by Michael Pollan], and it really hit home with me.” He says he was most interested in psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms. “Here was this thing that’s natural. It grows in the earth, it’s not chemical. I really wanted to try it.”

“I spent so much of that night laying there, crying and letting out all that pain that was locked up inside.”

After a time, Smith made friends with a psychonaut who introduced him to microdosing. Microdosing is the practice of taking very small doses of a psychedelic substance for purported benefits like mood elevation, increased creativity, or, as some believe, to reduce the symptoms of depression and PTSD.

Smith thinks this worked for him: “After a few weeks, my mood was a little better, and I felt more interest in life in general. I still had really bad days. They were a lot less frequent, but I’d still get nightmares. I still had a lot of issues, but the suicidal feelings were gone. I think the psilocybin saved my life.”


Psilocybin and Letting it All Go

This was when Smith decided to try a significantly larger dose of psilocybin.

“I started asking my friends who did psychedelics if they thought I should try something more,” he says “I started really reading anything and everything I could about psilocybin and how it might help me.” This would lead Smith to try three grams of magic mushrooms while on a camping trip with some friends. “I can’t explain how excited and nervous I was. I had read about it [psilocybin] and been told about it for a while now, and I was really hopeful.”

“Magic mushrooms could save your life.”

Smith recounts how his group of friends brewed psilocybin tea at their campsite in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest. “We were in a beautiful, pristine place. I had good people with me, and I felt really comfortable with this [psilocybin]. We ended up brewing some mushroom tea. I think one of the guys made four grams, but I only had three,” says Smith. Smith recounts how, after a little over an hour, he started feeling the initial phases of the psilocybin trip. Describing it as “physically overwhelming,” at first. “It was mind-blowing. You know, you can read all the books and listen to podcasts and all of that, but it doesn’t really prepare you for what it’s like. I was laying on the ground staring up into the sky, and I could see everything. I felt like this was it, I was going to fall into the universe, and I thought, ‘that’s okay, I’m ready to let go.’”

According to Smith, that moment was when everything came together. He says, “After I thought about it, and I really just let myself go, that was it. I felt like I was free falling, up and away from myself and into the other place where things were bigger. But less complicated. You know, I could look at myself from the outside for the first time in my life, and I saw all these issues I had, and I could finally make sense of them.”

MDMA in the woods

According to Smith, this event allowed him to forge a path forward and make some positive changes in his life.

“That night helped me realize that I had been carrying around all of this hurt and this baggage from losing my friends,” he says. “I had been feeling this guilt. I thought it should have been me, or things should have been different. The trip helped me realize that I couldn’t have done anything different. I, you know, could let these things go and really grieve for the first time since it happened. I spent so much of that night laying there, crying and letting out all that pain that was locked up inside.” Smith and his friends would spend most of that night traveling their own psychedelic journeys before coming down and sharing what Smith calls “the kind of stories that you can only share with guys that have seen the same shit you have.” 

Smith attributes that night to allowing him to finally begin healing from the trauma and loss he experienced in the military. However, Smith doesn’t believe psilocybin cured his PTSD. Instead, he says. “I don’t think that sort of thing ever really leaves you. I still have nightmares sometimes, and I still have days where I’m withdrawn or irritable. But the mushrooms helped me start working on myself and trying to fix some of the damage I’d done to my family. I’m better, in some ways, and they’re the ones that count. I’m drinking less, spending real time with my kids, and being a better partner for my wife.” 

Daddy Daughter Time

Currently, Smith is taking medication for his PTSD and other medicines for general anxiety disorder and depression. However, Smith says he and a group of friends make time every few months to use psilocybin, usually in a natural setting. Smith calls these his “top-ups,” saying, “This [PTSD] is something I’ve got to live with for the rest of my life. But the mushrooms help. They give me a way to let out all of the bullshit that gets built up, and when I come home, I’m a little better.” 

Smith also states he’s interested in trying other psychedelic medicine—particularly MDMA: “MDMA is one I’d really like to try. You read about all of the stuff going on with MAPS and how it’s helping these guys, and it’s really exciting stuff.”

At this time, psilocybin and MDMA are both undergoing clinical trials exploring their therapeutic potential for treating conditions like PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, and other mental health conditions. For example, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) recently concluded its final phase three clinical trial using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD. Their impressive findings showed that 86.5% of the MDMA group exhibited clinically meaningful improvement. By the study’s end, 71.2% of the MDMA group no longer fit the PTSD criteria, in contrast to 47.6% in the placebo group. Furthermore, 46.2% of the MDMA participants met the remission criteria, more than double the 21.4% in the placebo group.(3)

Results like those above reinforce the anecdotal stories from people like Smith, who have real, valuable experiences with psychedelic medicine outside the cynical setting. Stories like Smith’s can also serve as a beacon of hope for other veterans, or as Smith puts it, “If I could say one thing to some of the other vets out there, I’d tell them that this stuff is real. It can work, and it could help you. There’s a lot of guys like me that are hurting, and you know, dying every day. This medicine could save lives. Magic mushrooms could save your life.” 

(*Names have been changed to protect identities.)

This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.
  1. Inoue, C., Shawler, E., Jordan, C. H., Moore, M. J., & Jackson, C. A. (2023). Veteran and Military Mental Health Issues. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34283458/#:~:text=Research%20has%20shown%20that%20veterans 
  2. Brooks Holliday, S., & Pedersen, E. R. (2017). The association between discharge status, mental health, and substance misuse among young adult veterans. Psychiatry Research, 256, 428–434. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.07.011 
  3. Mitchell, J. M., Ot’alora G. , M., van der Kolk, B., Shannon, S., Bogenschutz, M., Gelfand, Y., Paleos, C., Nicholas, C. R., Quevedo, S., Balliett, B., Hamilton, S., Mithoefer, M., Kleiman, S., Parker-Guilbert, K., Tzarfaty, K., Harrison, C., de Boer, A., Doblin, R., & Yazar-Klosinski, B. (2023). MDMA-assisted therapy for moderate to severe PTSD: a randomized, placebo-controlled phase 3 trial. Nature Medicine, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-023-02565-4