Cage fighting possible treatment for PTSD

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

MESA, Ariz. -- The ultimate fighter series on Spike TV has catapulted mixed martial arts, or cage fighting, into the national spotlight. Now a group of Valley fighters say the violent, often bloody, sport should be classified as therapy.

At the American Pankration Academy, a mixed martial arts studio in Mesa, Kyle Dubay is a regular. But behind his warm smile looms a level of darkness, remnants of his three tours in Iraq.

"Every time that we were hit, it was always an ambush," he said. "It became the norm to get blown up, to get shot at."

When the former combat medic returned, he found himself spiraling out of control. It took months to realize he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"I get a lot of energy in my chest and it's a negative energy, but it builds up and it's powerful and I don't know how to get rid of it until I come in and I fight," Dubay said.

Jeff Funicello owns American Pankration Academy.

"Just recently it came to a head that this may be a really good form of therapy."

Funicello not only trains vets, he's also seen them heal.

"These guys don't want to be treated like victims," he said. "They don't want to be treated like broken merchandise."

As coach Chuck Markos explains, "People need to be pushing the envelope and looking at things that might be non-traditional and alternative."

Which is why many at American Pankration Academy believe the Department of Defense should research mixed martial arts as a credited therapy for PTSD.

As Markos points out, "They had a lot of money to fight the wars and they need to find some money to help the veterans who are now suffering with the problems the wars caused."

"I think that it's definitely worth exploring," said Dr. Angela Breitmeyer, a psychologist at Midwestern University.

Breitmeyer said while it sounds counter-intuitive to expose vets to even more violence, it makes sense.

"Exposing that particular individual to violence again in a more safe, controlled environment can be beneficial as long as that individual is able to process and work through the trauma," she said.

Trauma that many vets say vanishes once they begin training.

Dubay explains, "Go out there and try to think about your day while someone is trying to kick you in the head, it's not going to work."

Luke Ochsenfeld, a former Marine sniper said, "Some guys will have the shakes or be stressed out and then you'll notice as time goes on, they get a lot more relaxed and they just cope better."

And Funicello admits, "We get tons and tons of thank yous and all these people saying that this has been the greatest thing for their healing and for them facing their demons and getting through their PTSD."

The anecdotal feedback continues to inspire Funicello and so many others.

"Whether we get government contracts and get agencies involved, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, whether we're paid for it or not."

In September, the Department of Defense and the VA announced it will spend $100 million to research PTSD and traumatic brain injuries in hopes of improving treatment and diagnosis.