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Virtual reality helping erase battle 

David Ready, a psychologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Atlanta, remembers arriving late for a therapy session once to find his patients, a group of Vietnam War veterans, arguing over whether a thousand rounds of ammunition would be enough for any given engagement.

"It was so many years ago and they were discussing combat as if it just happened," says Ready, who explains that the heat of the argument reflected the feeling of fear and anxiety these men live with everyday. "There are people who believe that it has to be this way, that there is no cure for post traumatic stress disorder."

Ready's not one of them. He pioneered an experimental PTSD treatment that uses virtual reality to teach vets to deal with traumatizing memories. The first group of patients treated with the method has just completed therapy and Ready says most of the nine men reported significant decreases in the occurrence of flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and avoidance.

The second wave of patients began therapy in June. The twice-weekly sessions usually last for about 90 minutes: 40 minutes of virtual exposure to conditions like those encountered during the War -- gunfire, evacuation choppers leaving besieged GIs on the ground, the Viet Cong sweeping through the jungle -- and 50 minutes of discussion.

The vets have to "re-live," in Ready's words, the war so they can learn how to put the memory away as only a memory, not experience it as a daily trauma that wrecks marriages and careers. The study to see how effective VR is in treatment of PTSD will be complete Feb. 1, 2001. After that, the method will be compared to traditional methods like group therapy with medication. In the meantime Ready is measuring success on a case-by-case basis. A recent coup, he says, was a vet who opened up to his wife about the war for the first time by playing back an audio tape of his session.

"He told me that she looked at him and said 'I never knew. I thought I knew, but I didn't.'"

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