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The New War on Terror

Robert Rath | 19 Sep 2011 09:00
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Every Battlefield player knows the trick. Get a Specialist to slap a handful of C-4 onto an APC, drive up next to the nearest tank, jump out, and trigger the bombs. It's a normal part of play, considered almost daring and cheeky.

It would send Hawker into orbit. When he first came home, he'd rage quit when it happened. It reminded him of Ed Dominguez.

Hawker had flashbacks of the event, and lived with a deep sense of guilt that his team hadn't arrived in time.

"Ed wasn't in my squad, but I knew him, I talked to him. I wasn't his best friend, but I wasn't his worst friend," recalls Hawker. PFC Dominguez was 19 years old when he set out in a patrol out of Baghdad, riding the gun of a Humvee. Dominguez's column rolled up on an IED and radioed the rest of the unit that they were backing off the standard 300 meters, then there were two explosions. Hawker and his team rushed to respond, pushing through Baghdad traffic and screaming themselves hoarse. When they arrived, they found a mangled Humvee. The first IED had been a decoy to make the column back into the kill zone of a second device. It was bad. The driver had a concussion. The Track Commander had a piece of shrapnel on the inside of his head. The weapon mount Dominguez had manned was completely gone. "There was nothing left of the front shield, nothing left of the weapon, nothing left of Ed."

Hawker had flashbacks of the event, and lived with a deep sense of guilt that his team hadn't arrived in time to stop the blast. He knew the thoughts were irrational, that he couldn't have prevented Dominguez's death, but he couldn't shake them.

He started seeing a VA counselor at the urgings of his wife and doctor, but found it difficult to talk about his experiences until the counselor began discussing the need to confront, rather than avoid, his fears and guilt. Gradually, it dawned on Hawker that he was already using videogames to face his psyche. As a supplement to his therapy, he turned to Battlefield, where he forced himself into direct contact with the situations he dreaded. "I had to build up to it. I had a real hard time with it, but I forced myself through." He began to play as a sniper so he would be required to use towers, or stand with his face to a corner and ride out the anxiety of feeling confined. When APCs exploded from suicide bombs, he played through the flashbacks and tried to concentrate on winning the game. "It gives me a feeling of satisfaction, when I push through, it releases that tension, it desensitizes me to [the triggers]."

That feeling wouldn't surprise Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo, a clinical psychologist and Associate Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies. In 2004, Rizzo read a disturbing report on the prevalence of PTSD among Iraq War veterans and began experimenting with using virtual reality as a tool in the therapist's arsenal. The result is a program called Virtual Iraq, a full immersion simulator used to assist veterans with reliving, processing, and discussing their experiences.

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