Beyond sucking it up

Stress • How the Army is teaching soldiers to cope with the horrors of war.
2010-04-11T00:00:00Z Beyond sucking it upKevin Horrigan • khorrigan@post-dispatch.com, 314-340-8135 stltoday.com

The man on television said the U.S. Army had begun a new program to train soldiers how to deal with stress. He said it had a lot to do with positive thinking.

This sounded a little touchy-feely to me. A guy pulls his third or fourth tour in a combat zone, trying to figure out which identically dressed guys are trying to kill and him and which are his friends, never knowing when the road is going to blow up beneath him, watching his buddies get killed and maimed, and he's supposed to think happy thoughts?

So I called up the Pentagon and asked to be put in touch with the person in charge of the "Master Resiliency Training Course," Brigadier Gen. Rhonda Cornum. Touchy-feely-wise, this turned out to be a mistake.

This was the same Rhonda Cornum who, as a major and a flight surgeon with the 229th Attack Helicopter Regiment during the first Gulf War, boarded a search-and-rescue flight on Feb. 27, 1991, looking for the pilot of downed a F-16 fighter in the Iraqi desert near Basra. The Blackhawk was shot down. Five of the eight crew members were killed. Cornum and two others were taken prisoner by the Iraqi army.

"Let me tell you something about my own experience," she said. "So I got shot down. The next thing I know some Iraqi soldier is dislocating the shoulder in my already broken arm. I thought, 'Well, I'm not dead. I'm a prisoner of war.'

"That kind of thing can result in fear, anger, depression or grief. But I thought, 'Well, I'm not dead. As we were crashing, I remember thinking I had two options. Either I'd be dead or I'd be captured. Being captured was better. I could still wiggle my fingers and that was good, because I knew we were really good at doing orthopedics.

"Then this guy put a gun at the back of my head. I was thinking, 'This is really not going to go well, is it?' So I decided to think of something positive, and I was really wracking my brain trying to come up with something. I thought, well, I've had a chance to have a great life. Had a great husband and a great kid. I've had the chance to do a lot of really great things. And at least it won't hurt, which is a better end than a lot of people get.

"Then I heard the gun go 'click,' and I thought, this isn't that bad."

Naturally, this is the same way I would have reacted under similar conditions, except for the part where I would have been sobbing and cursing God and offering my captors Madonna's home telephone number.

So what if you're not a highly motivated, highly accomplished, incredibly positive person like Rhonda Cornum, 55, who has been a steeplechase rider, who wears Airborne and Air Assault tabs on her uniform, who not only has a doctorate in biochemistry but also an medical degree and specialties in surgery and urology, who has run the Army's Landstuhl Hospital in Germany, who has written a best-selling book and dismissed her sexual assault by her Iraqi captors as "not the biggest deal of my life."

What then?

"These things are teachable," she said, which is what the Master Resiliency Training Course, part of her Comprehensive Soldier Fitness command, is designed to do.

Based at Fort Jackson, S.C., the course takes senior non-commissioned officers and junior officers and teaches them how to teach their troops how to cope. It is taught in conjunction with, and based on principles developed by, the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center.

"We talk about being 'Army Strong,'" Gen. Cornum said. "This is not just about PT (physical training). It's about decision-making, compassion, judgment — it's totally holistic.

"We want our non-commissioned officers and young officers to be better able to instill skills to make their soldiers more resilient. Think optimistically. Communicate using evidence, not emotion. Act positively. Understand how emotions affect your thinking."

Here's the idea: The Army is spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to help the more than one in three returning veterans who have sought help for some form of stress-related illness. One in eight returning vets are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. So why not spend a few million dollars to teach them better ways to cope with stress?

Maybe it doesn't work for everyone. Not everyone can be like Rhonda Cornum, who is what social scientists call an "invulnerable," someone who can suck up whatever life hands him or her and move on. Maybe today's kids have been, as Gen. Cornum says, "bubble-wrapped" by their parents and aren't used to dealing with much adversity.

Maybe they shouldn't have joined the Army in the first place, but a lot of them didn't have many better options. If the Army can teach them resiliency, so much the better. Maybe they can teach it to rest of us.

Copyright 2015 stltoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

ACTIVATE YOUR DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Get weekly ads via e-mail