On an average day, 20 United States military veterans commit suicide.
“One a day is too many, but 20 is a big number. It’s unacceptable,” said Chris Meek, of Connecticut.
Meek, who is the co-founder of a non-profit called SoldierStrong, was in Ames on Thursday to meet with a group of experts to discuss how ISU’s Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) can help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Last month, SoldierStrong launched a new program called StrongMind, which immerses the user in a virtual reality setting similar to the one that caused their trauma.
“We are going to be funding and donating virtual reality software, hardware and clinical training to VA facilities across the country to help veterans with post-traumatic stress,” Meek said.
Thursday’s meeting at Iowa State University was a parallel track to that initiative. As SoldierStrong staff researched how they could get involved in the mental health arena and focus on technology— which has been the organization’s strength in recent years— they located a number of experts, several of whom gathered at ISU for the meeting along with representatives from Iowa State.
“We feel ISU has the best hardware for virtual reality given the cave that’s here at VRAC,” Meek said.
“We are also working with the VA’s Innovators Network, which is a group of forward-thinking people in the VA who are helping us deploy the hardware and the software at 10 facilities around the country.”
The program will contribute data to the Million Veterans Program, which is a collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program has the goal of collecting data on one million veterans.
“The DOE has five of the 10 world’s largest computers, and Iowa State University is the only university in the country that has a Department of Energy national lab here on campus,” Meek said. “The DOE collects all the data, and they give it to the VA to do various research projects.”
A big part of Thursday’s meeting involved the stakeholders deciding what data they would need, how they would use it and what they expected to achieve from it.
“My hope and goal is to come to some sort of a new solution of how to treat post-traumatic stress,” Meek said.
The stigma related to seeking help for PTSD remains one of the biggest obstacles for getting veterans to seek help. Meek is hopeful that offering therapy in a format that feels more like gaming that it does traditional counseling will encourage veterans to accept help — especially the current generation of veterans who grew up with video gaming systems.
“We’re hoping that the gaming feel to this program will reduce the stigma,” Meek said. “We’re hoping veterans will see it as a video game that helps you heal.”
But it’s not just recent veterans who deal with PTSD.
“We’ve lost more Vietnam-era veterans to suicide than whose names are on The Wall in Washington, D.C.,” Meek said. “And the post-9/11 generation is on that same path.”
The StrongMind program offers 14 different scenarios and each one can be tweaked a little bit to more closely resemble the scenario that is the trigger point for the individual veteran.
Being in a virtual environment resembling the traumatic experience creates an immersion therapy for the user.
Confronting the memory head-on, over and over again, reduces the brain’s response to it, so that ultimately, the veteran controls the memory and not the other way around.
“The whole goal is to reduce the trigger points that make you not want to talk about it or make you anxious or jumpy or scared,” Meek said.
As someone who worked three blocks from Ground Zero and was there on 9/11, Meek has first-hand knowledge of these trigger points.
The VR therapy is also being used in similar programs to help PTSD sufferers, such as emergency response workers and victims of military sexual assault.
“What we’re doing is focused on members of the military, but everything we’re doing is scalable for other people in the population,” he said.
Meek is a finance guy by profession, but he started his non-profit when he was asked for help. He’d been looking for a way to help after being near Ground Zero on 9/11.
“One of my most lasting memories of that day is the hundreds of first responders rushing into the Towers as thousands of us were going to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Upper East Side,” he said. “So I knew at some point I had to do something.”
Meek didn’t know then what it would be or when.
A few years after 9/11, Meek was approached by a buddy who was a Marine and knew a serviceman stationed in Afghanistan who was asking for tube socks and baby wipes — two essential items to U.S. service members serving in the Middle East.
“They hike all day, so they go through lots of socks then throw them out, and the baby wipes were how they took a shower,” Meek said.
Meek started sock drives, which quickly grew and were being held across the country, and he co-founded the non-profit SoldierStrong in 2009 to support that initiative.
As the number of deployed troops began to dwindle, Meek’s organization began to focus on scholarships for those who were returning.
That resulted in the creation of SoldierStrong’s mission: Helping service members take their next steps forward. With a history that started with tube socks, it was apropos.
“We started with steps on the battlefield and then moved to steps in job training and education,” Meek said.
The next evolutionary step for SoldierStrong was becoming involved with an exoskeleton device that enables a paralyzed person to stand and walk again.
“We’re doing the literal sense of our mission statement of helping service members take their literal next steps,” he said.
SoldierStrong now funds five different medical devices and is focused on finding revolutionary technology.
“We don’t just want to put a veteran in a better wheelchair. We want to help them walk again,” he said.
The exoskeleton allows the user to be at eye-level with the world again, which is also having an amazing result on the mental health of its users.
“So far the results of that are astounding,” Meek said. “One veteran we work with said, ‘I’m the tallest 5-foot-7 guy you’ll ever meet.’”
Results like that inspired Meek and those at SoldierStrong to wonder what else they could do to help with the mental health of veterans.
Meek was looking for revolutionary solutions and came across technology at the University of Southern California, which Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., had been developing for the past few years. SoldierStrong staff thought the program was just what they were looking for and started the StrongMind initiative earlier this year.
“It’s our 10-year anniversary next month,” Meek said. “If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would go from packing socks in my driveway to coming to Iowa State to meet with the best minds in mental health, I would have asked what they were drinking.”
SoldierStrong, working with the VA Innovation Center, has identified major research-focused VA clinics at which to begin deploying the StrongMind VR PTSD protocol. As more resources become available and more clinical testing is completed, SoldierStrong will expand deployment of the protocol to VA centers around the country.