ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — It is a lifeline for those who dedicate their lives to saving others and the place which treats PTSD-suffering military members using virtual technology for free just got a big boost.

  • UCF Restores helps military, first responders battle PTSD
  • Money will go towards virtual-reality therapy, other treatments

University of Central Florida (UCF) Restores received a $1 million check from the U.S. Army; the money makes it the second installment of a promised $3 million.

According to the clinic, the money will allow them to enhance their virtual-reality therapy program, using biometrics and more customized scenes.

Currently, they have mocked up a prototype, with the help of university-affiliated E2i.

"My students are actually programming everything," said Peter Smith, a University of Central Florida assistant professor of communications and media.

"We're going to make scenes for firefighters, we're going to make scenes for police officers," explained Dr. Deborah Beidel, who founded and oversees UCF Restores.

After a three-week intensive program, 66 percent of military personnel no longer meet PTSD criteria. The number climbs to 76 percent for first responders, like firefighters and police officers.

However, Beidel muses that with the right customization — changing therapy scenarios and even clothing — that number could be even higher.

"It saves lives. Many, many lives during this month, I guarantee it," said John Almskog.

More than two decades ago, Almskog began fighting fires.

Now, the division chief of training for the Lakeland Fire Department oversees all training, but silently is fighting something else.

However, after years of bottling up emotions and compartmentalizing the trauma in which he witnessed, Almskog is finally sharing his story with his fellow firefighters.

"It was just something we buried," he said. "You don't greet an opportunity to cry. Everyone else is crying. I have to fix this."

Leading up to his PTSD diagnosis last year, Almskog suddenly could not remember the first emergency call he ran.

He also could not eat or sleep, consumed by memories and second guessing his responses to emergencies.

"My wife looking at me and saying, 'Are you here right now?' And I'm like, 'No I'm not," he recalled.

He reached out to UCF Restores for help. After a few months of outpatient treatment, Almskog no longer fit PTSD criteria.

And since then, Lakeland Fire Department has invited UCF Restores to a June mental health symposium. They also started a peer support team, probing fellow firefighters to share about their mental state.

"I needed to do it for me … I needed to do (this) for my family. I really needed to do it to come back here and tell my story to all of these men and women," Almskog said. "It is the most important thing we can do."

As for the third million promised by the government, Beidel hopes to codify the program and take it national, so therapists around the U.S. can benefit.

"Our goal is not to keep this treatment to ourselves," she said.