Virtual Reality Helps U.S. Soldiers Back From Iraq

By Roland Piquepaille

According to some studies, one of every six Army soldiers returning from the war zone in Iraq experiences major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Military scientists have launched several efforts to help them, including therapy based on a virtual reality program. The Washington Post, in "Recalling Iraq's Terrors Through Virtual Reality" (free registration), and the San Diego Union-Tribune, in "Military to try virtual combat stress remedy," are both reporting on the progress of this initiative. Read more...

Here are some selected excerpts from the Washington Post article.

As the fighting in Iraq enters its third year, the U.S. military is grappling with what threatens to become a mental-health crisis in the armed forces. A New England Journal of Medicine study published this year estimated that one of every six Army soldiers returning from the war zone experiences major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
The virtual-reality experiment is among the most innovative efforts the government is launching. Among others: military-sponsored support groups for returning fighters, a mock house at a rehabilitation center to teach wounded troops to care for themselves before going home, combat-stress units to counsel personnel on the ground, and psychological questionnaires to earlier identify problems among returning troops.

But let's go back to the virtual reality program, which will cost about $4 million over three years.

"The events keep coming back. They have nightmares, flashbacks. They can't get away, and they want to get away," said James L. Spira, a staff psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego who is a lead investigator in the virtual-reality study. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to block out the experiences, he said.
Within a few months, the virtual-reality treatments will begin to be offered to troops at three locations: the Naval Medical Center and Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital in California -- which together hope to enroll roughly 180 patients -- and Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, which hopes to enroll about 75.
The system used in California, which is based on the video game Full Spectrum Warrior, puts the patient in the middle of a city. Therapists will gradually expose the patient to more radical scenarios. In the first session, the scene might be an empty street. In the second, other troops or civilians might be added. Near the end of the treatment -- which could last weeks or months, depending on the person -- the patient may be put through a full-scale attack. Researchers say they also plan to introduce smells and to superheat the treatment room to the 100-degree-plus temperatures the patients experienced in Iraq.
Using VR to cure stress
"A virtual reality program transported Navy Cmdr. Paul Hammer back to the streets of Iraq. A study will test the technology as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder." (Credits: Earnie Grafton for the picture, Rick Rogers for the legend, The San Diego Union-Tribune).

Of course, this program has its detractors.

The researchers worry that the technology may turn out to be just a distraction, a gimmicky, new-age twist on traditional therapies that may not work as well -- or, worse, that it could end up aggravating some patients' conditions by re-exposing them to their traumas too quickly if it is not used by a skilled therapist.
To avoid that, the therapists will make use of biofeedback sensors, measuring heartbeat, breathing, temperature and moisture on the skin. These statistics will help doctors determine the patients' reaction to certain stimuli -- such as the sounds of Arabic-accented voices yelling at them, helicopters landing and mortar shells striking -- and whether they are nearing the edge of what they can tolerate.
"We are not developing a self-help tool. This is something that needs to be used hand in hand with the help of a good clinician," said Albert Rizzo III, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who is collaborating with Spira.

Anyway, it's not the first time that virtual reality has been used for years to cure phobia. For example, read "Virtual Reality Therapy Cures Spider Phobia" or "A (Virtual) Therapist's Dream."

Sources: Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, March 23, 2005; Rick Rogers, The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 17, 2005

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