Virtual Reality Is
Real Therapy for Vietnam
by Jan Northstar
You are standing
in a clearing, a grassy field, alone and in silence. Down to your
right, a few paces away, is something brown and murky. You walk
toward it, step in it, realize it's a swamp and hastily back out.
Turning around, you see darkened woods in the distance.
as rifle fire begins to peel off in the distance. You look for cover.
You see the trees but you are not in control of your legs. You try
to scramble to the safety of the trees. As you do, the distinctive
sounds of an Army helicopter chop the air. It lands.
fills the area.
You are still
desperately trying to find cover. You think you see the sniper in
the woods and maneuver out of his range.
all of the sounds are gone and you are again standing in the grassy
field, alone and in silence. You remove the head-mounted display
and step down from the platform. You have just left the virtual
reality war zone.
It's More Than a Game.
For most people,
this is a fun and exciting virtual reality experience. For veterans
who served in Vietnam and are suffering from the chronic effects
of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this could be an important
milestone in confronting the catastrophic experiences of war.
VA Is Looking for Vietnam
Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for Research
VA Medical Center, in collaboration with Emory University and Georgia
Tech, is taking advantage of the latest in computer technology and
combining it with traditional methods of therapy in an effort to
effectively treat veterans diagnosed with PTSD. They are currently
looking for Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD to take part in
a research study using virtual reality technology to help treat
symptoms associated with the condition.
Dr. Renato Alarcon, chief of the VAMC's mental health service line,
virtual reality exposure (VRE) therapy was used in a controlled
study by Dr. Barbara Rothbaum at Emory to treat acrophobia, the
fear of heights. Rothbaum worked with Dr. Larry Hodges, associate
director of Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualization and Usability
Center, to develop the software.
put their acrophobia patients in a position to be therapeutically
accessible without the expense and time associated with traditional
treatment [frequent visits to tall buildings, bridges, etc.] and
they were successful," said Alarcon. "The next step was to move
on to a more complex clinical condition and PTSD was the next logical
choice because it is triggered by and related to unpleasant experiences
and exhibits a large number of symptoms.
"This is the
first application of computer technology used specifically in this
manner for the treatment of PTSD. The partnership between our staff,
Emory and Georgia Tech in pioneering this treatment provides the
veteran who undergoes the effects of PTSD with a wealth of expertise,"
Said Dr. David
J. Ready, psychologist, Atlanta VA Medical Center (VAMC), who has
been working with veterans and VRE therapy, "We all have memories
of negative events that happen in our lives, but they are just memories.
With sufferers of PTSD, these memories take the form of nightmares
and flashbacks. The nightmares are so horrific that they wake up
feeling as if something has taken them over. They are in the past,
not here," he said. "It is coming at them in an uncontrollable way.
lets the patients recall and actually get re-immersed into the experience
in a graduated and controlled fashion. We can slow it down with
the cooperation of the patient. Most of the veterans we see are
either flooded with their past experience or trying to stay away
from it," said Ready.
Ready, treatment is free and available for Vietnam veterans who
appear likely to benefit from this study, based on an independent
evaluation at Emory. Veterans who participate will go through eight
to ten sessions of VRE therapy and four assessments. Sessions generally
last an hour and a half.
time, the veteran's heart rate is monitored while he or she is introduced
to the computer-generated surroundings. Situations gradually increase
in intensity as the veteran feels more comfortable. Throughout the
session, veterans are asked to describe what they are seeing and
feeling, while being provided with adequate corrective therapeutic
Georgia Tech Students
Developed the Virtual Reality Software
reality software, developed by students at Georgia Tech, has two
combat-oriented scenarios: the landing zone in a grassy field, and
riding in a helicopter gunship. In the helicopter scenario, participants
are asked to sit in a bucket-like seat that simulates helicopter
vibration while flying at various altitudes. The visual is simulated
terrain in Vietnam.
and Ready agree that virtual reality exposure is intensive therapy.
Exposing veterans to the painful memories that they have been avoiding
is a delicate process.
will never be able to do it," said Ready. "Some will work up to
it and some are ready to do the therapy right now. We need those
people," Ready said.
For More Information
For more information
or to participate, call Dr. David Ready at the Atlanta VAMC at (404)
321-6111, ext. 7082.
About the Author
is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Public Affairs in
the Atlanta Regional Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs.