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Recalling Iraq's Terrors Through Virtual Reality

Therapy Aims to Alleviate Post-Traumatic Stress

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page A01

SAN DIEGO -- Joseph Blythe settled into the couch in the psychologist's office, slipped on a pair of high-tech goggles, took hold of the joystick and within a few seconds was transported through time and distance back to Iraq. He walked briskly along the maze-like urban streets, scanning the rooftops for friend or foe, passing by bombed-out cars, listening to the roar of choppers flying past the palm trees.

As he reached an alley, Blythe heard the whoosh of a bullet going past his head and flinched.

Military psychologist James L. Spira uses virtual reality to treat patients who have post-traumatic stress disorder. (Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)

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"That was scary," he said.

Blythe, a 25-year-old medic who spent eight months with the U.S. Marine Corps in Fallujah during its most turbulent period in 2004, is among the first to test a new virtual-reality system that the military hopes will help servicemen and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The idea behind the treatment is counterintuitive. It forces the troops to do the last thing they want to do: relive the experience.

By confronting a make-believe Iraq, military scientists hope, patients will be able to assert better control over their memories. The intent is to stop the nightmares, outbursts of aggression and other readjustment issues that afflict many returning Marines, soldiers and sailors.

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. Many others, such as Blythe, report milder symptoms.

"Our minds aren't made to process that much death," he said. "Whoever goes to Iraq and comes back and says they have no problems is either in denial or is lying."

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.

Although the virtual-reality program is a relatively new idea, military doctors were impressed with results they saw when it was used with survivors of the World Trade Center attack.

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