Tuesday, January 08, 2008
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
BELLEVILLE, Ill. — The scene: A desolate street in an Iraqi city.
As night gives way to dawn`s first light, you walk warily, the M-16 in your hands pointed at every alleyway and door you approach.
From your left you hear a baby screaming. From somewhere off to your right you hear a man`s voice echoing eerily, endlessly, in the morning call to prayers.
And then it happens. An abandoned truck up ahead disappears into a ball of yellow-and-red flame. You hear a man scream, and then your radio crackles to life.
"IED! IED!" a voice calls over your radio about the improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb. "Man down!"
Welcome to Virtual Iraq, a modified video game that researchers at the University of Southern California are using to help war veterans deal with the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
A demonstration of Virtual Iraq highlighted a veterans services summit held earlier this month at Washington University in St. Louis.
Maj. Kevin L. McGhee, the Missouri National Guard chaplain, gave Virtual Iraq a "test drive" for an audience of more than 50 social workers and vet outreach workers who met at the university.
Donning goggles and a headset, McGhee held a conventional video game controller that allowed him to walk into buildings, drive an armor-plated Humvee or even fire the .50-caliber machine gun mounted topside.
"It seems so real," said McGhee, who was stationed at an Army base outside Baghdad from 2005 to 2006.
But there was a lot that a computer simulation couldn`t include, he said.
"I was on a base where there were a lot of mortars coming in," McGhee recalled. "Or the stench of death—the smell of a body that had been burned to a crisp."
The idea behind Virtual Iraq is to expose military veterans to an intensive simulation of the traumas that haunt them, said Albert "Skip" Rizzo, the director of the Institute For Creative Technologies at USC.
"What we try to do with exposure therapy is bring a person back to those events, have them relive them and talk about them, emotionally process the memories," said Rizzo, a psychologist.
Virtual Iraq enables a veteran to re-experience the odors, sounds and scenes that triggered the painful memories, eventually desensitizing the veteran to them.
With the press of a computer key, Rizzo can tweak the simulation almost endlessly_adding effects such as fog, sandstorms, even giving this virtual world the greenish hue of images seen through night-vision goggles.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an emotional illness triggered by life-threatening events or severe traumas. Symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigiliance, flashbacks and avoidance behavior_such as the habit of some Iraq war veterans to drive through stop signs back home in the States because doing so helped them survive in Iraq.
At least 20 percent of active-duty Army soldiers who`ve served in combat zones, and up to 40 percent of Army Reservists who`ve experienced combat, need treatment for acute mental stress, according to a recent Army study.
Rolled out in 2006, Virtual Iraq has spread to a handful of military clinics across the country on a trial basis. Results so far on a small group of clinical test subjects are impressive: Up to 80 percent who took part in 10-week sessions have shown full remission of symptoms, Rizzo said.
Julie Mastnak, a psychologist who counsels veterans at the PTSD clinic at the Jefferson Barracks V.A. Hospital in St. Louis County, said Virtual Iraq shows great promise.
But Mastnak, who watched Rizzo`s demonstration, cautioned that Virtual Iraq must be used carefully by patients and therapists.
"You want to do this in a way that`s very slow and very much in the veteran`s control," Mastnak said, "so that they don`t feel overwhelmed or retraumitized in some way by too much, too soon."
Rizzo started working on Virtual Iraq in 2003, after stumbling across an XBox game called Full Spectrum Warrior.
"And I saw the clips of that, and it looked so Middle Eastern," he said.
That got Rizzo to thinking about the impact of the Iraq war.
"And I said, `You know what, just in case this isn`t `Mission Accomplished,` we should be ready to deal with the people who are going to come back with significant problems," Rizzo said.
(c) 2008, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
Visit the Belleville News-Democrat online, at http://www.belleville.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.