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'My therapy': Virtual reality gaming changes Billings veteran's life for the better

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Posted at 7:12 AM, Apr 22, 2024

BILLINGS — Some have called virtual reality gaming an escape, but for one Billings veteran, it's a lifestyle. Not only has it given Darwin Oak something to live for after years of depression, but he's also made a name for himself within his gaming community.

“You know, I feel as young as I do in that picture today,” Oak said at his Billings home last week.

Nuclear war technician, helicopter crew chief, and combat medic are just a few of the titles Oak accumulated during his 30 year stint in the U.S. Army.

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Darwin Oak

“I’ve been deployed, I don’t know how many times, five, seven, something like that, to all over the world. A lot of places, back sided countries that you didn’t know about,” said Oak.

Those experiences can take a toll on even the strongest of people. At one point, Oak said he felt like his life wasn't worth living.

“I’ve been shot at and stuff. Got a plate in my neck from getting shot at. I was getting depressed. And I was on a lot of medications for pain and mental health,” Oak added.

That changed four years ago when Oak's son introduced him to the world of virtual reality gaming.

"This is my therapy...it’s helped me because I’m here. And I feel great,” said Oak.

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Darwin Oak

He immersed himself in the first person shooter virtual reality game of Firewall: Zero Hour. He said he hasn't needed medication ever since.

“I thinks that’s what it does. I think it just distracts you. Desensitizes you?” Oak pondered.

“The idea of being able to escape a little bit and to get into a different world creates such engagement for patients,” said Max Holden, an occupational therapist with the Rehabilitation Hospital of Montana.

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Occupational therapist Max Holden of Rehab Hospital of Montana

Holden uses virtual reality with his own patients and has seen the positive effects first hand.

“I found that virtual reality, when we set them up appropriately on it, gives them that sense where the risk is low but the fun is high,” added Holden.

Oak has put himself on the map within the Firewall community by playing 10 to 12 hours everyday. He's ranked 18th worldwide on the Firewall leader board.

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Darwin Oak

“It’ll take about another year to get to number 10 on the leader board,” Oak said.

For Oak, doing something he loves means it's time well spent.

“I’ve got a plan now for the rest of my life. I’ve got to live to be 145 to get what I want done," joked Oak.