Virtual reality program can ease soldiers' trauma

A virtual reality (VR) program developed in the US in cooperation with University of Haifa experts and presented on Wednesday at a VR conference at the university will help American soldiers in Iraq - those who return from the battlefield suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and those training to enter the killing fields. It could easily be used by the Israel Defense Forces because it is "universal and can be adapted to any country interested in preparing its soldiers for the difficult experiences of warfare," said Prof. Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California, one of the developers of the program who often comes to Haifa. "Syndromes that the soldiers suffer from are depression, low self-image, flashbacks and thoughts of loss," he added. "Early treatment with the help of this VR tool can lessen the damage that might be caused the soldier." The VR program helps a soldier experience fighting through a number of sensors. He puts on special goggles that include earphones, which allow him to see the sights and hear the noises on the battlefield. He can sense the fighting in open areas, in closed structures, while walking or riding in a vehicle or flying in a helicopter. It works even at night, when he wears night-vision goggles, the researcher said. Rizzo, who has conducted joint projects with University of Haifa occupational therapists and VR specialists, claims that the program is also appropriate for physicians going to the battlefield who are forced to deal with serious medical dilemmas. "Many doctors arrive without any military skill," he explains. "The program enables them to experience ahead of time what might happen in reality and so to prepare themselves for various medical cases. It will make it easier for them to function under fire. Today's soldiers, Rizzo said, grew up in a digital world, and so it's easier for them to adapt and use the program. The special goggles measure the soldier's heart rate, blood oxygen level and other medical indices relevant to the soldier's mental state. "There are already a number of soldiers who returned from Iraq suffering from battle fatigue and trauma who are being treated by the new VR program, Rizzo said, adding that it has lessened such phenomena as nightmares and depression. By the end of the year, he projects that some 200 soldiers will have been treated by it. This number is only a drop in the bucket, in light of the fact that one in three soldiers returning from Iraq suffers from some mental disorder as a result of the type of fighting there. It was, in fact, this shocking statistic that led to the development of the virtual reality battlefield for rehabilitation purposes.