Traumatized US soldiers being treated n ‘virtual Iraq’

SAN FRANCISCO – Traumatized US soldiers are being treated for post-war psychological disorders by going out on patrol in a computer-generated “virtual Iraq,” experts told a conference.

Skip Rizzo, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, has helped create a program that simulates life in the war zone for Iraq veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The ground-breaking treatment allows soldiers to experience the sights, sounds and even the smells of a war-zone, courtesy of wrap-around goggles linked to a startlingly realistic virtual world.

The idea is to re-introduce veterans to the experiences that have inflicted mental scars until gradually they are no longer haunted by the memories, a long-established therapeutic technique known as “exposure therapy.”

“What we do is put somebody in a virtual Iraq but at a level where initially there will be minimal anxiety,” Rizzo said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

“Say for example their trauma event was being blown up in a Humvee — we might start them off just standing in the desert next to a Humvee.

“Gradually we would put them in the Humvee and have them start driving down a desert road. Eventually over the course of the therapy you introduce elements that increase the realism — bombs going off, things blowing up.

“It’s a gradual exposure to a realistic environment which you can’t really do just through imagination.”

Soldiers undergoing the treatment can be placed in a variety of situations — either as the passenger, driver or gunner in an armored vehicle or as a soldier on a foot patrol walking through an Iraqi city.

“You could be walking down one street and a child will come up to greet you, you could be walking down another street and a car explodes,” Rizzo said.

The virtual Iraq experience is designed to be completely immersive.

Fake aromas — including gunpowder, burning smoke, diesel fuel, body odors, exotic spices and roast mutton — are wafted under the patient’s nose.

The boom of bombs is simulated by giant speakers placed under the patient’s chair. “If you’ve ever stopped at a set of traffic lights and a kid has pulled up next to you playing rap music and you can feel your car shaking — it’s the same principle,” Rizzo said.

The realism of the graphics has impressed patients, Rizzo said. “We’ve have had people ask us in certain situations ‘Is that real or is that video?’,” Rizzo said.

So far the ‘Virtual Iraq’ has been used in clinical trials at 10 locations across the United States, although only four soldiers have completed a course of the treatment.

One of the first successful patients was a 21-year-old female treated for PTSD. “She was a support staff person that had frequent exposure to suicide bombing sites and areas where there was significant human carnage,” Rizzo said.

“I’m very conscious about making any grand claims about this treatment yet because there is such a small group of patients. But the early results have been encouraging,” Rizzo said.