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Soldiers and veterans looking to alleviate the devastating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder might soon have a new way to help themselves. Strangely, it involves using their gray matter to control a videogame.

The process is known as neurofeedback, or NF, and it’s the latest in a long, increasingly out-there list of potential PTSD remedies — from neck injections to memory-zapping drugs — being studied by military researchers. This week, scientists at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center announced plans for a clinical trial on 80 patients, designed to compare neurofeedback with a sham control procedure. The trial, the first of its kind, is meant to determine whether or not NF can avail soldiers of symptoms like nightmares, anxiety attacks and flashbacks.

“The proposed study could expand treatment alternatives for servicemen with PTSD,” the announcement reads. “If [neurofeedback] is shown to improve symptom reduction [...] it would offer a non-pharmacological intervention that would avoid undesirable side effects, and accelerate recovery.”

While the idea sounds pretty odd, the process of neurofeedback isn’t so intimidating (and I would know, having undergone the procedure myself for The Daily last year). A clinician affixes EEG electrodes to specific regions on a patient’s scalp, designed to read the output of the patient’s brain activity. Then, as the clinician monitors those brain waves from a computer console, the patient controls the key element of a videogame — like a car racing through a winding tunnel — using nothing more than their mind.

If a patient’s brain activity remains calm and steady, the videogame responds with enhanced performance — the car moves more quickly and navigates smoothly. If activity is wonkier and less controlled, that race car will veer out of control and, say, smash into a brick wall. Game over.

The idea behind NF is grounded in the emerging science of brain plasticity, or the ability of the adult brain (previously thought to reach stasis in adulthood) to change throughout life. Neurofeedback clinicians suspect that the brain, in “seeing” its own activity on-screen, is spurred to fix defects in order to work on a more optimal level. Over a series of several sessions, those repairs then supposedly become more permanently entrenched.

“When the brain sees itself interacting with the world, it becomes interested in that,” Dr. Siegfried Othmer, chief scientist at LA’s EEG Institute and responsible, along with his neurobiologist wife Sue, for “The Othmer Method” — a specific approach to neurofeedback being used in the military trial — told me last year.  ”Likewise, when it sees the signal on-screen and realizes it’s in charge, it becomes interested. You might not notice, but the brain takes notice.”

The realm of brain plasticity is relatively new, but neurofeedback actually isn’t. The procedure first gained notoriety in the 1960s as a treatment for everything from migraine headaches to bed-wetting. Still, in part because of a paucity of mainstream scientific research, the approach has long been relegated to the realm of bunk science. “I think the practice has gotten ahead of the science,” Dr. Andrew Leuchter, a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, told me. “It wouldn’t be surprising … if much of the benefit was attributable to the placebo response.”

Despite such mainstream skepticism, neurofeedback is already being used by several military doctors and psychologists. Maj. Michael Villaneuva — nicknamed “The Wizard” by his patients — has performed NF on several hundred active-duty soldiers, and even brought his game console and electrodes on a deployment to Afghanistan this year. And Dr. Jerry Wesch, who leads a PTSD recovery program at Fort Hood, describes the results of his own neurofeedback trials on patients as “jaw dropping.”

Upwards of a thousand former soldiers have also tried neurofeedback, thanks to Homecoming 4 Veterans, a non-profit started by the Othmers that offers free NF to veterans through a network of 200 practitioners nationwide. The two are also responsible for training Villaneuva and other military docs in the art of NF.

Already, the Othmers are confident that the military’s clinical trial, expected to kick off in December, will yield positive results. And they hope that the trial, once complete, lends more credence to the therapy they’ve helped pioneer. “I think the trial could be huge, not only with [medical] academia, but for clinicians,” Sue tells Danger Room. “They’re often wary of adapting procedures that haven’t seen evidence-based study. So this checks off an important box.”

But the trial won’t be easy: Controlled tests of processes, rather than pharmaceuticals, are notoriously tough. That’s because designing and executing a “sham” procedure is much more difficult than, say, just doling out sugar pills instead of the real drug.

Then again, for soldiers who credit neurofeedback with their recovery from PTSD, the execution or academic impact of a clinical trial is hardly the most important thing. “How it works doesn’t matter to me,” Staff Sgt. Justin Roberts, who underwent the process at Fort Hood, told me. “Just as long as it does.”

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In 2003, Ian Welch was on his first combat tour in Iraq. As his battalion waited to storm the Diyala Bridge and seize Baghdad, an artillery shell struck the vehicle behind him, killing two soldiers and knocking Mr. Welch unconscious. When he came to, he was disoriented. His vision was blurred. Blood dripped from his ears. He helped gather the remains of the dead before heading out to take the bridge. He returned to Iraq twice more on combat tours.

Mr. Welch was later diagnosed with chronic PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He now lives in Dallas, Texas, with his girlfriend and government-paid caregiver, Katie Brickman. Every day, he faces the long-term effects of PTSD: bouts of amnesia, insomnia, anxiety, dizziness and vomiting.

Photographer Brandon Thibodeaux spent two months chronicling Mr. Welch’s struggles and with Wall Street Journal photo editors Matthew Craig (Executive Producer) and Kate Lord (Associate Producer), created the video below. This is Mr. Thibodeaux’s account. To read the story and see the complete interactive, click here.

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I’ve come to think of Ian’s way of dealing with PTSD as a protective moat–a barrier he crosses only for doctor’s appointments, haircuts and other necessary outings.

When I was first assigned the story, I was planning on still photographs. But in the end we decided that the complexity of the story required much more, and I needed a different approach. I quickly learned that I needed ample time, as well as video and audio equipment to best tell Ian’s story.

Ian is someone who rarely steps outside of his structured life, so it was essential to gain his trust. In the end, Katie, his girlfriend, was key. She acts as his protector, making sure to blunt potential triggers to his PTSD. Katie studied photography and knew of the work of Tim Hetherington and other war photographers. She convinced Ian The Wall Street Journal project could be therapeutic.

Before I was assigned the story, I knew of PTSD as a combat disorder. After spending days with Ian and Katie, I learned of its long and tenacious grip on everyday life.

I felt it only fair to reveal my own vulnerabilities since Ian exposed so many of his. As a teenager, I underwent chemotherapy for a rare case of lymphoma cancer. While I didn’t face enemy fire or lose friends in a battle, it gave us a patch of common ground. I faced attacks from my own body. And when he described his anxiety and mood swings, it stoked memories of friends I had met at the hospital. I often wondered why I was allowed to survive and they were not. Even Katie’s role with Ian was reminiscent of how my parents must have managed, juggling appointments and providing support.

Once he allowed me access to his home, Ian, Katie, and I spent a lot of time together. It was important to become a part of his routine. Many days were quiet with little to photograph. Since Ian and Katie stayed up late, it made sense for me to stay overnight sometimes.

To understand his deeper, more personal thoughts, I asked Ian to read his journals, and to describe what he recalled from the injury on April 7, 2003. I felt horrible asking to hear such difficult memories. One night, as we finally felt comfortable enough to go over his combat experience, I had to help him walk back into the house. Katie didn’t know how to react when she saw how weak he was. It was a powerful reminder of how difficult it was for him to revisit the most painful parts of his past.

When the project was over, Ian was inundated by phone calls from loved ones. Katie couldn’t thank us enough for spending so much time with Ian and for capturing such an honest portrayal. Ian also talked about the project a lot and was more open to discussing his PTSD. I hope his story and video helps him hear those inner thoughts with better perspective. And I hope his story reaches and comforts others like him.

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The veterans project of Brooklyn-based photographer Jennifer Karady uses the narrative, set-up shots of art photography to address real people and events more typically treated by photojournalists. In 2004 she began reading about the profound effects of combat stress and eventually decided she wanted to make photos with veterans to stage their war stories. When she discovered that post-traumatic stress disorder was being successfully treated with virtual reality technology, with veterans re-enacting their “trigger” moments, she knew she had hit on a way to tell the veteran’s narratives.

Ms. Karady says: “I realized that making a photograph about one’s experience could potentially offer relief to veterans suffering from psychological trauma and that perhaps I could utilize my artistic practice to help people. The idea evolved as I realized that I needed to create a safe space in which veterans could re-enact their moment from war. Though this project is conceptually inspired by a therapeutic model, I am extremely aware that I am not a therapist, and I do not claim that the process is clinically therapeutic. However, the process can be helpful for the veteran in transforming an experience that may have had a negative effect on his or her life into a positive experience. Also, I’ve found that the act of telling one’s story publicly can be deeply empowering and validating.”

Ms. Karady’s photos are the culmination of months of interviews, preparation and planning. Her exhibition, “In Country: Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan,” will be at the CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. through Aug. 27. The show is already hanging but officially opens July 15 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The text that follows is transcribed and edited from interviews conducted by Ms. Karady.

Former Specialist Shelby Webster, 24th Transportation Company, 541st Maintenance Battalion, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with children, Riley, Dillin and Sidnie, brother Delshay, and uncle Derek; Omaha Nation Reservation, NE, October 2010

I was 20 years old when I joined the Army. I was a single mom and I had two babies that I left – a two- year-old and a three-year-old. When I found out that I was deploying, I remember crying on the phone to my dad, “I don’t want to go.” I didn’t join just to join. I joined the military thinking I would give my kids a better life.

I drove a PLS (palletized load system truck). We transported all sorts of supplies from Kuwait into Iraq when there was nothing there. Whatever they needed, we hauled. The funny thing about it is that we weren’t armored. We only had flak vests and our little M16s.
When we convoyed into Iraq for the first time, it was probably two o’clock in the morning. I remember being so tired and seeing explosions and thinking, “Wow, this is like the movies. This isn’t happening.” Then we started getting attacked. We had a big convoy of about 20 trucks. We stopped and my squad leader, Sergeant Jackson, jumped out and said, “Be ready, lock and load!” At that point I thought, “How am I going to shoot and drive?” I remember shaking and almost freezing up. And my TC (passenger and vehicle commander), Gabe, said, “It’s OK, Web. It’s OK. I’ve been through this already.” He was trying to reassure me because I was terrified. They had us line up all the trucks in four rows. Sergeant Jackson told us to get out of our trucks just in case. So we were in the sand, lying in the prone position just waiting. Then we hear gunfire and I remember thinking, “What am I going to do, I’m a girl.” I lay there crying to myself, “God, please, I don’t want to die. I want to go home to my kids.” I was so scared. It was so hard.

I’m Native American and I believe in my culture. I believe in my Omaha ways. I said a little prayer to myself asking God to protect me and to watch over my babies if something were to happen to me. This feeling came over me and, I don’t know if it was my subconscious or what, but I heard a voice that said, “It’s going to be alright.” I recognized that voice as my Grandpa Danny’s voice. I was 10 when he passed, but I remember him – he was a good grandpa and always protective. In this moment I also smelled cedar and we pray with cedar. When I smelled it, I took a deep breath and I smelled and smelled. I thought, “What the heck?” I looked around and asked Gabe, “Do you smell that?” He said, “No, I don’t smell nothing.” I could still see and hear tracer rounds and explosions and could feel the ground shake. But a feeling of calmness had come over me and I thought, “I can do this.” When I called home and told my Dad that I smelled cedar, he cried. He said, “Well, we’ve been praying for you. We’ve been having meetings for you.”

My Dad had my kids while I was gone. It seemed like during those two years I saw my kids probably one or two times. My kids are ten and eleven years old now and I had another baby after I got back. My youngest is now five years old and totally different compared to my older kids who have separation anxiety – they always have to know where I am. My youngest is more independent; she’s her own kind of person. But the older two are always looking for me, asking, “Where’s Mom?” And I say, “I’m right here.”

Shelby Webster works as a probation officer at the Omaha Tribal Court.

Former Satellite Communications Specialist Aaron Grehan, 11th Signal Brigade, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with girlfriend, Neta, and mother, Judy; Peterborough, NH, May 2007

Four months into my tour of Iraq I got kidney stones because of all the calcium in the bottled water. I was airlifted to a place called LSA Dogwood, which is just outside Baghdad in the middle of the desert. It’s a pretty good-sized tent hospital. Now, the thing with this place is that there are no trees; there’s nothing out there. It was probably 120 degrees during the day—a good bit hotter than it was in downtown Baghdad. The tent next to mine housed all the burn victims, both U.S. troops and Iraqis. It was miserable. There were nothing but screams and moans coming from that tent.

I had an IV because they wanted me to pass the kidney stones, so every two hours I had to get up and go to the bathroom. I had to walk through the tent with all of the burn victims. There’s guys over there whose legs would be so blackened that it didn’t look like a leg, and there were little kids that you couldn’t even recognize as a human being. It was horrible. At that point I really started looking at the war differently. I saw how it affected people—the inhumane consequences. They couldn’t have stuck me next to a worse tent to have to walk through every day.

About six days into my hospital stay, there was a loud explosion. And then another one, and another one. Soon we’re all getting under our cots as if that’s going to protect us from some 3,000-pound hunk of metal coming in and exploding. The explosions are getting more frequent and more intense. You could hear commotion from all the tents; everybody’s yelling and screaming, commands are being shouted, confusion. People don’t know which command was coming from where. Sometimes the military can be so inefficient like that. Somebody came in and said, “We gotta get out of here!” Then someone else came in and said, “No, stay put!” Then another person came in and said, ”We’re getting transported out of here. Everyone get outside so we can get into vehicles!”

We headed outside and everybody’s out there in their hospital gowns, their asses are hanging out in the wind. Half of us had our own IV bags, just holding them up, and mine kept backing up so I could see this stream of blood going in. It sucked because it hurt. We’re outside and it’s 120 degrees and we look over and there’s this cloud of smoke a quarter of a mile away. Everyone is wondering what is going on, and finally word circulates that there’s an ammo dump over there. Real smart of the U.S. Army to store all of these munitions and explosives so close to a hospital. They had millions of pounds of IEDs, explosives, etc. It had gotten so hot out there that one of them exploded and it set everything else off, at this point everything from grenades to rockets, and the rockets had started going off, zipping around randomly. It was pretty insane.

We got word that there were no vehicles. There were probably over a thousand of us just sitting outside not knowing what to do. Then we were told to start walking in the opposite direction of the cloud of smoke. There was this mass exodus of people in hospital gowns holding their own IV bags walking through the desert. We walked almost two miles over open desert before they sent vehicles to pick us up.

Aaron Grehan is a psychedelic trance DJ and organizes electronic dance events in and around New England.

Former Staff Sergeant Andrew Davis, 75th Ranger Regiment, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, with wife, Jodie, and Iraq war veterans and friends Tom and Andy; Saratoga Springs, NY, October 2009

At the beginning of the war, my mortar section and a company of rangers were sent to Haditha. There is a hydroelectric dam about nine kilometers long on the Euphrates River that was rumored to be laced with explosives. If it blew, it would flood the Euphrates floodplain, keeping us out of Baghdad. It was supposed to be a two-hour mission, and we ended up in a thirteen-day firefight.

It was about day five when Jeremy, one of my mortar gun-leaders, was hit. It was the middle of the day and hot as hell. There was a wall on the front of the top of the dam and a wall in the back. We were on the backside, and we started making shelters to protect us from the harsh sun. We placed our rain ponchos on the wall of the dam, secured them with rocks and stretched them to the ground, creating a little tent. I told my soldiers constantly: “Don’t fucking stand up, you’re a silhouette, you’re on top of this dam, they can see everything you’re doing, right?” But since the artillery hadn’t hit anywhere close to us in a few days no one thought that anything was going to happen.

Jeremy and I were literally sharing a poncho, and one of the rocks holding it in place fell down. Jeremy stood up to fix it, we heard a whistle, and he was laid out. His eye was just kind of dangling and it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I quickly called for the medic. In the meantime we stopped the bleeding as much as we could, put his eye in his head, and covered his head. The medic came down, and I started gathering my men to move once the medic took over. The last thing I remember was looking at Jeremy and seeing the medic, and he went like that [makes gesture of sliding hand across throat], and I just thought, “Holy f***, all these guys were best friends.” I wasn’t even worried about me anymore.

After that, I told my soldiers to get down to the water and clean the blood off their clothes. They had their buddy’s blood on them, and we weren’t getting new clothes anytime soon. You can’t be wandering around with your friend’s blood because it ruins morale. We started joking about it, making eyesight jokes, which sounds morbid to your average person, but it’s the only way to get through it. Looking back, things like that were just sick, but everyone laughed at the time. It gave new meaning to the fight; everyone got more careful. I always think about all of us sitting in a circle with our helmets and Kevlar on, and it was hot and there was blood everywhere, and just making jokes. It was so primitive and so sick but it was what helped get everybody back to normal.

I was an avid backpacker and camper before I went into the military. I was an Eagle Scout, I was always camping, and I won’t set foot under a tent now. When I think about it, I honestly don’t know if what happened on that dam is the reason, but I won’t anymore. My wife has probably asked me a hundred times to go camping. I don’t even like sleeping away from my base—I mean, my house.

While Andy Davis’ friend and colleague Jeremy survived his injuries, he is currently blind in both eyes and sustained some brain damage. Andy ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2006 and narrowly lost the election. He is the cofounder of a nonprofit that assists student veterans on campus based at the University of Minnesota. Andy presently works for the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs in Albany, NY.

Former Staff Sergeant Starlyn Lara, C Detachment, 38th Personnel Services Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom; Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA, January 2010

We were in a convoy between my camp at Kirkush Military Training Base and Camp Anaconda in Balad, which is where everything happens—that’s the hub. At the time I was the FOO (field ordering officer) and I was responsible for all of the money that came in and out of the installation. I would convoy very frequently in order to transport money—like $100,000 in cash—under my vest.

I was in a Humvee, but our unit isn’t a tactical unit, so we didn’t have armored Humvees. What we had were Kevlar plates that lined the seats but not the vehicle. They were designed to keep you from dying but not designed to protect you. When the bomb went off, it actually shot pieces of the engine up. I was in the passenger seat. As soon as the vehicle exploded, my first thoughts were about the safety of the money. Then there was just all this blood, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. My ears were ringing from this huge concussion blast. I couldn’t hear, and my vision was blurred. And so many things were happening. I couldn’t make out the sounds around me—I was disoriented. I was looking…the windows were shattered and my arms were cut, I was bleeding, and I just couldn’t figure out where all of the blood was coming from. It seemed like forever but it probably took place in the blink of an eye.

There are many things that connect me back to that moment. It’s usually only when I can’t sleep or when I am sleeping. I had a really weird dream that I was chasing a pink rabbit. I was trying to catch the damn pink rabbit and it was huge. I think it’s funny—I’m laughing in the dream, going, “I can’t believe this pink bunny!” And then, the pink bunny runs into the street, and I’m wondering, “Why is the pink bunny in the street?” And I stop, and the pink bunny gets hit by my Humvee. I see myself in the vehicle and I realize that the pink bunny is the bomb. So sometimes my dreams aren’t necessarily reliving the experience. They’re some kind of distortion, how I find ways to cope with the things that really can’t be coped with. There’s really no easy way to get around them.

Starlyn Lara currently works as a human resources/accounts payable assistant at Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit veterans organization that provides numerous services for veterans in need, and as a part-time emergency medical technician.

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