Hollywood's Prescription for Post-Traumatic Stress

Video: Computer helps vets treat stress

We’re the lucky ones. We have a choice.

As employees of FOX News, going to Iraq is an entirely voluntary assignment. For the troops it is not. And every man and woman serving there continues to witness the horrors perpetrated by insurgents on a daily basis. They see children blown apart, they see mothers crying over the shattered bodies of sons and daughters, and they see their own friends and colleagues mutilated and murdered by terrorists who have no regard for human life.

Little wonder then that, according to a 2004 study by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, more than 15 percent of combat troops returning from Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. That means thousands of veterans are going through nightmares, flashbacks and emotional numbness. The sound of a door slamming can trigger an intense feeling of fear or depression, suddenly transporting them back to the trauma they endured on the battlefield. PTSD is a condition that wasn’t even recognized during the Vietnam War, and psychologists are still working on how best to treat it.

Now there’s a new method, developed by an unholy alliance of the military, the government and Hollywood. The first two of those three are now tapping into the production skills of the third to treat mentally scarred veterans. Hollywood’s production techniques, and those of video game designers, are being harnessed to enable vets to return to the battlefield without leaving the safety of their doctor’s office.

They don goggles and earphones and enter a virtual reality war, complete with mortar attacks, the sudden appearance of gun-toting insurgents and the thunderous explosions of roadside bombs, all carefully calibrated to each vet’s experience and reactions. The point is to help the patient face their fear, again and again if necessary, until they learn to live with it. Eventually, doctors say, the fear subsides, the trauma is not exactly forgotten, but made more easy to deal with, and the patient can once again function normally. It’s a therapy that, if successful, can literally save shattered lives, enabling formerly emotionally crippled vets to once again rebuild relationships with husbands, wives and children.

Doctors who’ve used the technology with Iraq vets say they are highly encouraged by it, and that some patients who were suffering extreme cases of PTSD have recovered to the extent that they actually want to go back to Iraq.

I tried the technology myself, and was surprised by how real it felt. The sights, sounds and yes, smells, I was confronted with brought back all sorts of memories of my assignments in Iraq, some good, some bad. But I can say for sure that with a four year-old daughter at home and my wife pregnant again, it didn’t persuade me I want to return to Iraq. I’ll leave that to far braver colleagues and to the troops whose bravery and sacrifice should inspire us all.

Jonathan Hunt has served as a New York-based correspondent for since 2004. He led the coverage of the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal, covered the war in Iraq from Kuwait and Baghdad, and was the first FNC reporter to travel into Fallujah. You can read his bio here.

Jonathan Hunt currently serves as a New York-based chief correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). Hunt joined the network in 2002 as an international correspondent based in Los Angeles.