Virtual Iraq: Treating The Traumas Of Reality With Virtual Reality

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You have returned from a tour in Iraq, you decide to take a trip to Disneyland to unwind. The cannons are fired from the ship, just part of the show, right? Not for one former Army staff sergeant with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. While in Iraq the staff sergeant barely survived a roadside bombing and mortar attack, when the cannons of Disneyland fired he suddenly found himself flat on the ground crawling for cover. Intellectually he knew he was at Disneyland but he could not stop himself from reacting physically to the sound of the cannons, the results of post-traumatic stress disorder.

What if the staff sergeant could go back and re-live the attack in a safe, controlled environment. In this way he could allow himself to not only face his fears that he is aware of but also dig up the repressed memories of the most traumatic experience of his life. The “virtual Iraq” system will allow him to do just that.

Virtual Iraq was originally adapted from the video game “Full Spectrum Warrior” and is credited to Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a clinical psychologist from the University of Southern California. The system is available for both research and clinical use. Virtual Iraq is a form of virtual reality exposure therapy; the patient is virtually exposed to stimuli to allow them to face the traumatic experience that led to their PTSD.

To help the patient overcome post-traumatic stress disorder using virtual Iraq a therapist will first ask the subject to tell them about the event as they remember it. They will be asked to do this several times; the virtual scenario will be programmed based on this account.

The goal of Virtual Iraq is to re-create the stress and anxiety of the original event that led to the PTSD. In doing so, the suppressed or hard to describe memories and emotions become easier to grasp and vocalize. The virtual Iraq system has been compared to a backhoe, capable of digging up even the most repressed memories.

After the programming is complete the patient will stand or sit on a “base shaker” and wear a virtual reality headset. The headset gives the visual images based on the patients scenario, as the patient turns their head, looks up or down the scenery changes accordingly.

The base shaker simulates the feeling of an explosion by vibrating violently sending the sensation throughout the patient’s entire body. Through a pair of headphones the sounds of the battle are introduced, the therapist can also introduce smells into the scenario, diesel fuel, body odor, smoke etc. The therapist will add each new element slowly. The objective is to re-create the situations as realistically as possible. Blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and levels of perspiration are monitored closely as the therapist introduces new elements to the scenario. Monitoring these responses is critical in order to strike a balance between comfort and anxiety.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta tried out Virtual Iraq in November 2006 as part of a CNN report. On his blog, he described his experience with Virtual Iraq as overwhelming. He was initially skeptical, not because he didn’t believe in the technology, but because he had only spent a few weeks in Iraq and this is not comparable to the tours of the average soldier. After beginning his virtual trip back to Iraq he described it as reliving some of the most terrifying moments of his life, including all of the emotions of fear, helplessness and panic. With each new session he could feel his anxiety dissipate.

Army Col. Michael J. Roy describes the experience in an article on

“You feel like you’re going to die: Your heart’s beating out of your chest, your blood pressure’s going up and you want to just get away from it all but you can make it through it. And you realize you’re going to be OK.”

Col Roy goes on to describe some of the success stories:

“We’ve had guys who were avoiding going out in public, not using the Metro, not going shopping, not going to sporting events and the movies. Then they go through this, and suddenly they’re able to do those things.”

Virtual reality is also being used by civilian therapist to treat common phobias such as the fear of flying or driving. Virtual Afghanistan is currently under development.


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