October 20, 2009

So these researchers (being encouraged, of course, by fine organizations like the American Enterprise Institute) are working to counterbalance all that gloomy, depressing stuff like post-traumatic stress disorder that people associate with serving in a combat zone.

A sense of personal strength, appreciation for life and love of family have all been enhanced, says Frikken, 39, who directs artillery fire for 10th Mountain Division troops fighting here. "I will never be the same person I was before my combat experiences," he says.

What happens to soldiers like Frikken has led Army leaders to develop a resiliency program that urges GIs to look inward and discover how combat may have made them emotionally stronger.

Research appears to show that many people can emerge from traumatic experiences with greater self-confidence, a keener sense of compassion and appreciation for life, says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Cornum and other experts call this concept post-traumatic growth.

Although the military focuses attention on troops who develop mental health conditions in combat, Cornum says, the majority of war veterans do not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other problems.

"We never ask if anybody had some positive outcomes. We only ask about this laundry list of illnesses," says Cornum, referring to a battery of health questions soldiers face when they leave the combat zone.

And this is seen as what we used to call "proof." Traumatized soldiers, who suspect their military careers will take a turn for the worse if they admit to problems, have no incentive at all to pretend they're fine. Right? And of course, it couldn't possibly be that the trauma itself might make them less likely to admit it! (Even though we've read stories of vets who were later denied benefits because they didn't admit they had a problem when asked to fill out the questionnaire.) God knows, I'm not saying everyone who sees combat has PTSD. But to base your conclusion on whether soldiers admitted they had problems is nowhere near a scientific method.

She often alludes to her experiences as a prisoner during the Persian Gulf War. Cornum was an Army captain and flight surgeon in 1991 aboard a Black Hawk helicopter shot down over Iraq. Five of the seven soldiers died. Cornum suffered two broken arms and a gunshot wound to the shoulder, was captured with two others and held for eight days.

Help me, Rhonda. Help me understand how your being sexually molested while held captive made you a better person, and that you wouldn't trade that experience for all the world.

And while you're at it, explain to me why this program shouldn't be seen as coercive, an attempt to manipulate soldiers into suppressing their emotional problems - because it's so much easier (and cheaper) for the Pentagon that way.

Her goal is to include a self-assessment on traumatic growth with a health questionnaire given to soldiers three to six months after they return from combat. She would also like to include in preparations before and after GIs are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan short video segments of servicemembers describing how their personal lives changed for the better after surviving combat.

The new tools could be put into effect within a year, Cornum says.

Richard Tedeschi, an expert in post-traumatic growth at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is collaborating on the project with the Army. Even though he calls the initiative "uncharted territory," Tedeschi says research indicates that soldiers have found value in their combat experiences. If informed about potential for post-traumatic growth beginning in basic training, he says, soldiers might not automatically assume "that the combat experience produces PTSD and you're kind of doomed."

During remarks at the American Enterprise Institute recently in Washington, Tedeschi said some servicemembers found the changes in their lives so profound after combat, they expressed gratitude for having gone through it — even if it cost them permanent physical damage.

"They'd felt they'd changed as people in ways they otherwise wouldn't have," Tedeschi says. "At the same time, as this trauma separates them from other people, it also allows them to maybe see themselves as more human than they ever were before, have a closer connection with what it means to be a human being ."

You know, I don't doubt this happens. After all, people have a tendency to try to integrate their experiences for growth. But there's a fine line between that voluntary process and being cajoled by the Army into pretending you don't have problems.

See, the essence of PTSD is that it's an involuntary reaction to trauma. We don't know why some people get it, and some people don't. And to imply to vulnerable soldiers that there's something weak about them if they do is despicable.

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