In a spacious conference room at a Philadelphia hotel in early December more than 150 noncommissioned officers (NCOs), many of whom had passed through multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, appeared to be responding surprisingly well to what many in attendance had thought derisively was going to be just a giant "group hug" mandated by the military bureaucracy. Drill sergeants and other NCOs carried on about "icebergs" (unconscious patterns of thinking or feeling) and "catastrophizing" (thinking the worst)—as they were schooled in how to remain psychically intact in the worst of circumstances.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., wrote in a special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association, that developing psychological resilience should gain a standing in the Army equivalent to that of the calisthenics that start each soldier's day. Comprehensive Solder Fitness—said to be a program that "likely represents the largest deliberate psychological intervention in history"—has already exposed hundreds of thousands of soldiers to an online "global assessment tool," a psychosocial test of emotional, social, familial and spiritual well-being.
The 20-minute questionnaire in the global assessment tool requires answering questions about life satisfaction, critical thinking, ability to exert leadership, control over emotions, levels of personal enthusiasm, life meaning, familial relations and such. Online training courses follow to enhance "fitness" in the major areas targeted. In addition, NCOs undergo master resilience training and then proceed to teach skills to others. "Every single person—and I've talked to hundreds of them—has said: 'Why didn't the Army do this 20 years ago?'" says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, who oversees the program.
Does resilience training actually work? The question occurred to Cornum and Martin E. P. Seligman, the prominent University of Pennsylvania psychologist, who have helped to shape this type of training. The two suggested to Casey starting with a pilot program before launching the master resilience training. Seligman recalled the general's response in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, set to be published by Free Press in April. "Hold on," Casey thundered to Cornum. "I don't want a pilot study. We've studied Marty's work. They've published more than a dozen replications. We are satisfied with it, and we are ready to bet it will prevent depression, anxiety and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. This is not an academic exercise, and I don't want another study. This is war. General, I want you to roll this out to the whole army."
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness ambitiously assembles a panoply of methods from positive psychology. One of them teaches concepts intended to promote so-called post-traumatic growth, an idea that presumes some people experience profound personal transformation through the travails of disaster, disease and war. It is the stuff that Oprah and Dr. Phil thrive on.
Many people think they have grown through tragedy—except the research shows they seldom do. Stevan Hobfoll of Rush Medical College in Chicago and colleagues found that perceptions of growth in those who went through either 9/11 or the Palestinian intifada sometimes translated into psychological distress, right-wing leanings and support for violent retaliation. Hobfoll acknowledges that growth is possible, but only when it inspires specific actions that translate into meaningful personal change.
The concept of wresting redemption from tragedy dates back to biblical times—and as a science it is probably still as much art as it is a science. Psychologists still need to prove that they can be dramatically more successful than the ancients in counseling victims how to come to terms with what befalls us. The jury is still out on Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. But if it proves even a partial success, it could provide a modicum of support to civilians as well as soldiers when "stuff happens".