Virtual reality, real help for veterans

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The Humvee engine rumbles as you drive through a stretch of desert in Iraq, past the occasional cluster of low buildings along a street strewn with trash.

Suddenly, the vehicle in front of you explodes and the sky begins to fill with smoke. Just beyond the wreck, you see the silhouette of an insurgent shooting to kill any survivors or rescuers. As the scene plays out on tiny screens mounted to the goggles you wear, the radio chatter playing in your headphones erupts in panic, and the smell of diesel fuel wafts over you.

For someone who has never lived it, experiencing this scene from the Iraq War via virtual reality is unnerving. For those who have, it just might be healing.

Increasingly, therapists are using virtual reality systems in conjunction with a form of talk therapy to treat veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, tailoring the scenes to patients’ memories to help them relive and process difficult emotions.

As many as one in five people who served in Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from symptoms of PTSD, though estimates are higher for certain groups of veterans. Few seek treatment.

Researchers developing the virtual reality system, which so far has been distributed to about 70 clinics and hospitals around the country, say it may offer a familiar way into therapy for a generation of service members who grew up playing video games, or an effective treatment for those not helped by other kinds of care.

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