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Virtual Reality System Helping North Texas Veterans With Post-Traumatic Stress

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Maybe it was a car bomb on a crowded street. It was dusk. There were flies buzzing around. A jet had just passed overhead.

Whatever scenario led to post-traumatic stress for a veteran, a new virtual reality system at the VA North Texas aims to recreate it, empowering veterans to confront and process memories they often spend years avoiding.

Clinicians are training this week on the StrongMind system, donated by the charitable organization SoldierStrong.

North Texas is one of 13 VA facilities across the country to receive one, including VA medical centers in Houston and San Antonio.

Rather than asking veterans to recall their stressful memories, or imagine the scenarios as part of their therapy, StrongMind puts them in the middle of something they can see, hear, feel and even smell.

Patients put on a VR headset, putting them in a three-dimensional version of a small town, or rural village or the back of a truck.

Over a number of sessions, clinicians can slowly add in sounds the veteran remembers hearing, the weather, and eventually explosions or gunfire.

Patients can hold onto a firearm, and stand on a platform that vibrates as the scenario unfolds.

Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo developed the system over the last 15 years at the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC, where he is the director of medical virtual reality.

"We're finding this particular kind of treatment may draw, particularly young, digital generation service members and veterans into treatment, that they would normally avoid or not seek in a traditional format," he said.

The system design has evolved with feedback from actual patients and clinicians, and Rizzo expects that to continue as it rolls out now to wider use.

The VA North Texas receives about 1,000 referrals a year for veterans with PTS.

SoldierStrong said there are already at least eight additional requests for the system from VA facilities, and as many as 40 requests from private interests.

The equipment for each system, and the training that comes with it, is about a $10,000 cost the organization is covering.

Rizzo believes the work can also translate over to assisting victims of sexual trauma and first responders. There has also been interest he said from the sports world, where athletes are looking for ways to deal with adversity.

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