Virtual reality therapy for combat stress

ATLANTA - For some combat veterans, putting on a virtual reality helmet is helping them cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Under a virtual reality helmet, 27-year-old former Army Staff Sergeant Jeff Matthews is back on the battlefield.

"There's bullets everywhere," he says.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports the virtual reality combat is part of an experimental treatment at Emory University for more than 90 veterans with PTSD.

"It's not so much what's going on," Matthews says, "but how you're feeling while it's going on. I guess that's where the real therapy is."

Dr. Maryrose Gerardi coaxes him to re-connect with feelings like fear and panic that he thought he left on the battlefield. Describing the feeling in his body during the therapy, Williams says, "I'm thinking about to get shot."

"This immersive form of therapy is something that gives you sights, sounds, smells if they're appropriate," Dr. Gerardi says. "It makes it much more difficulty to avoid."

"She's keying in gunshots, or helicopters, bullets, rockets," Matthews says. "But I'm using my imagination to do it."

WATCH: Virtual reality therapy

Matthews served two combat tours. The first was in Iraq in 2005. His next tour, in Afghanistan is the one that haunts him.

"Iraq was a cakewalk," Matthews says. "Afghanistan was a lot tougher. A lot more austere. The enemy was a lot more bold - just a lot of bad stuff."

Especially one patrol along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Matthews and his squad were suddenly face down in the dirt, pinned down by the Taliban. His platoon sergeant and friend Matt Blair was next to him and took a bullet to the head. He survived.

But Matthews says, "For that split second, I thought he was dead. I guess it was traumatic and I guess I held that with me."

"At some point," Dr. Gerardi says, "you have to go back to those feelings you've put to the side, and bring them back to the front and process them."

Matthews never did, and came home withdrawn, edgy and angry.

His wife Ashleigh says their marriage was collapsing, "Within two days of him coming home, we already started fighting."

"He was hurt," Ashleigh says. "So was I, so we needed to repair that." Without therapy, Ashleigh says, "It would've ended. It would have ended completely."

The therapy's intense. For Matthews, the demons were real. "I know it's not reality," he says. "I know it's not there, but you still get that rush of feeling inside of you."

Over and over, Matthews repeated his story in five 90 minute sessions and made peace with his combat memories.

"You want to be a big hot shot and, you know, you think you understand what's going on, that you can do it yourself," Matthews said. "But sometimes you just need to suck it up and go get the therapy."

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.