Resilience: Army offers new training for soldiers back from war

Talmachoff, an Iraq war veteran, was skeptical of this unusual technique, which asks some of the most hardened, battle-tested warriors to challenge their beliefs and avoid “thinking traps.”

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But after a few weeks, he saw the benefits in the 48 soldiers who also participated in the weeklong program. He witnessed one soldier avoid a fight at a bar by responding to an aggressor calmly and another console the wife of a newly deployed soldier by helping her see the situation from a more realistic perspective.

 “We recognize that bad things do happen,” Talmachoff said. “Family members die, people get divorced, so it’s not to disregard those things that hurt us, but the resilience training teaches us to not get stuck in that negative feeling, like there’s no way out. We’re not trying to teach unbridled optimism, but rather realistic optimism.”

Talmachoff was one of the first soldiers to take part in the Army’s new program, aimed at curbing instances of suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers returning home from war.

It is so new that lawmakers who sit on committees overseeing the military haven’t heard of it in discussions on Capitol Hill, where the debate is more focused on whether to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.

The program was originally created by researchers Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte at the University of Pennsylvania to help high school students thrive under increasing amounts of pressure and adapt when things go awry.

“We have to learn how to think keenly when embroiled in conflict, how to derive knowledge and meaning from our setbacks and failures,” write the authors, who compiled 15 years of studies into their book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. had been searching for a proven, time-tested method to better prepare the Army’s 1.1 million soldiers for the shift from combat to civilian life. Upon hearing of the University of Pennsylvania program’s success, Casey led the Army’s $117 million push to develop it to the force’s unique needs.

“This is one of the most important programs the Army has introduced in a long time,” Casey said at a launch of the program earlier this month.

After going through the program himself, Talmachoff and colleague Dr. Ted Thomas have been at the heart of adapting the university program for the thousands of majors and lieutenant colonels at the Command and Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The resilience training is part of a larger umbrella program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, which aims at developing a soldier’s mental, physical, spiritual, social and family health. At Fort Leavenworth, the training has been incorporated into a rigorous, 10-month military intelligence program.

But two months after launching resilience training, some of the majors at Fort Leavenworth weren’t sold on the program.

Maj. Cecilia Shaw said the different ways of dealing with problems were helpful, but the resilience training didn’t address the cause of the stress.

“I think it’s a Band-Aid for the Army,” she said in an interview. “There is merit to the resilience and how you think about things, but the root of the problem is … the multiple deployments.”

Talmachoff, who is now in charge of training soldiers with the resilience program and admitted to initially being skeptical himself, said the program is still in a state of flux, adjusting to the feedback it gets from students at the college.

But he notes the case of the soldier who helped a fellow soldier’s wife come to grips with her husband leaving for combat duty overseas by putting the entire situation into perspective.

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The sergeant asked the woman to name the worst-case possibilities (her husband would be killed) and then the best-case scenarios (he would win the lottery and be elected to office). Using both extremes, he helped her to see that the most likely possibility was probably somewhere in the middle: that her husband would see some combat, but that he was trained and would be OK.

“She felt significantly better afterwards” Talmachoff said. “It helps you see that not everything in a situation is all negative.”

Officials want to have all 1.1 million soldiers trained in the program in the near future, from drill sergeants and soldiers in basic training to majors and colonels leading units of troops. Officials have talked of offering the training to veterans and other branches of service if it succeeds in the Army.

It’s such a new program that several members of Congress known for their military expertise were not familiar with it. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and John Boccieri (D-Ohio) said that they thought it was a great idea but that they didn’t know about it.

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the director of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, said she’s met with dozens of lawmakers on Capitol Hill about resilience training. Staffers are likely to be more familiar with it than are the members themselves, she said.

Murtha’s staffers who handle his responsibilities as chairman of the Appropriations Defense subcommittee said the Army has briefed them about the program and that Murtha is “continuing to review both details and implementation” of the resilience training.

Boccieri served 14 years in the military as an aircraft commander aboard the C-130 Hercules before coming to Capitol Hill. After serving five rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said it was “very difficult” to separate combat-style thinking from the natural thought process when he was back home.

“It’s like … an athletic competition,” he said. “Bring your A-game, fight it out on the football field [and when] you come off the football field, you’re not running up and tackling people you view as your adversary.”

Boccieri said he was hopeful but cautious about whether the program would reap the intended results.

“I’m glad to see that the Army’s being proactive instead of reactive,” he said. “And I think it makes a lot of sense to do that. But in the end, time will tell if it lowers or decreases the numbers of PTSD.”

Soldiers will be required to fill out a 170-item questionnaire at intervals in the program’s initial stages, and research results on its preliminary efficacy are expected in December.

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Talmachoff said he’s seen positive developments in his own life, including a stronger relationship with his family. But he notes that it remains to be seen how the training will fit with the Army.

“Will this eventually become a part of the culture that it no longer has to be a dedicated emphasis? I don’t know,” Talmachoff said. “At some point I suppose we’ll look back and say, ‘Why did we ever not improve in these areas?’ ”

But the process has been personally liberating to Talmachoff, himself a veteran who helped in the retaking of Fallujah in 2004.

He points to one night, after a class, when he was walking home from dinner through a dimly lit breezeway in Philadelphia. He heard a man singing behind him. His first thought was that this could be a “weirdo,” or worse, a mugger.

But then he thought about what he had learned and tried to imagine a more positive scenario. Maybe the man was happy.

“You sing beautifully,” Talmachoff said to the man.

The man smiled and thanked him. Then they went their separate ways.

Editor’s note: Gen. George W. Casey Jr. is married to Sheila Casey, The Hill’s chief operating officer.