An ambulance explodes and the ground shakes beneath your feet. The scent of burning rubber fills the air as you hear the sound of distant gunfire. Your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing. You can almost feel the heat. Then, as you put down your weapon and remove the video game-like headset, you realize you’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead, you are taking part in a virtual reality exposure therapy study at Fort Bragg that is aimed at treating post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, and other combat-related stress disorders.
Professionals from the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services are conducting a study to see if using virtual reality, or VR, therapy will help service members coming home from combat environments combat PTSD.
“This study is designed to show if virtual reality exposure therapy is an effective way to combat the severity and symptoms of PTSD,” said Victoria Ingram, a principal investigator with the Department of Health and Human Services on loan to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg.
For an Army with more than a decade of combat operations and countless Soldiers who have deployed in support of those operations, PTSD is a topic that has come to the forefront.
“(PTSD is) an emotional and psychological reaction to a traumatic event and is usually characterized by a life-threatening situation, such as seeing others around you die or severely wounded,” Ingram said.
Ingram and a team of clinical psychologists and nurses, as part of the WAMC’s Clinical Psychology Service and the National Center for Telehealth and Technology hosted an open house Aug. 9 at the Airman and Family Readiness Center on Pope Field and displayed the different types of VR trainers along with biometric data collection processes they would use during the research trial.
“The equipment we are using varies from a stand-up VR trainer where the patient will stand on a vibrating platform holding a simulated M4 assault rifle with both audio stereo headphones and VR headset to a convoy trainer,” said Anne Edens, clinical psychologist.
Sgt. Arick E. Higginbotham, a Soldier with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery, 108th ADA Brigade, donned the virtual reality gear and looked more like a typical “gamer” than a Soldier getting ready for a therapy session.
The different trainers are used to simulate the traumatic events service members have gone through that trigger PTSD symptoms.
“It’s very believable,” said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Chuck E. West, with the 320th Medical Company out of Greensboro, N.C. “I have two combat deployments, and I think this would be very beneficial because they have the ability to gradually expose Soldiers to more stressful situations.”
“During a combat deployment, stressful and sometimes traumatic experiences are inevitable. But, as Soldiers, the common way to deal with this is to push it aside and drive on,” Higginbotham said.
The “push it aside and drive on” aspect of soldiering is unique and contributes to the move into using virtual reality therapy.
“Soldiers have an inherent ability to emotionally disconnect from traumatic events in order to stay alive and complete the mission down-range,” Ingram said. “It’s for this reason traditional therapy is not as effective on our military population as it is on our civilian one. With virtual reality, the hope is to put service members back in the moment, however, in a safe environment, in order to reach the emotional connection necessary to make treatment and recovery possible.”
“We hope it’s more attractive to people who don’t want to sit down and hear ‘How did that make you feel?’” Edens said.
Over the next two years, professionals are looking to work with around 350 Fort Bragg Soldiers to show scientific proof that the use of virtual reality is a viable option for the treatment of PTSD.
For more information on PTSD and treatment options visit the National Center for PTSD website at www.ncptsd.org or go to www.fortbraggmwr.com and go to the link for PTSD.