Politics & Government

Army tries resiliency training to improve soldiers' mental health

Veterans suicides continue to rise
Veterans suicides continue to rise Chuck Kennedy / MCT

The Army is struggling to hire more mental-health professionals to treat soldiers for readjustment problems.

It is burying a record number of troops who died by their own hands. Alcohol abuse and drug use discharges are up, and chaplains are holding marriage retreats to help families deal with a worrying number of divorces and domestic violence cases.

These are a few of the unwelcome consequences of the nation's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have whipsawed soldiers and their families from one long, combat deployment to the next for most of the last decade.

"We've never done a war this way before," said Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon and former commander of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

The Army, frustrated at its inability to get ahead of problems, has adopted a new tack -- resiliency training for every single man and woman who wears green.

Army leaders, led by Secretary of the Army John McHugh and the service's top generals, are convinced that they can prevent some of the negative fallout on the home front by making soldiers more "psychologically fit" before they deploy.

"Listen, you don't just decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro one day," said Cornum, who is leading the effort. "You get ready for a year before you do something like that. In the same way, we need to mentally and physically prepare for these deployments. If you go into it psychologically fragile, you're not going to come out better."

Soldiers, particularly the young, are often ill-equipped to handle prolonged stress and become vulnerable to worst-case thinking, Army officials say. The emotional and psychological training is designed to help them "bounce back" through more positive thinking, a type of training one can imagine being received skeptically at the tank range or in the Ranger Training Brigade.

At Fort Hood, which has sustained more than 545 soldiers killed in action, more than any other Army installation, senior officers needed no encouragement on implementing the concepts.

Beginning in late 2008, then-Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch started building a "resiliency campus," where soldiers and family members could participate in outdoor adventures, get financial counseling, talk to a marriage therapist and work out, all in the same general location.

While Cornum's program "was trying to get legs under it, Gen. Lynch didn't wait," said Col. William Rabena, the campus commandant. "He was hot off a rotation to Iraq as a division commander, and he saw the toll it took on his soldiers and families. He didn't want to wait, so he moved out on his own. A lot of the goals are the same -- improving the mind, body and spirit."

Read more of this story at Star-Telegram.com

Related stories from McClatchy DC