MSG Jessica D. Lam, US Army
Master Sergeant (MSG) Roy Benavidez received critical injuries when he stepped on a land mine during an operation in Vietnam; injuries that caused doctors to tell him he would never be able to walk again. At the hospital, MSG Benavidez set his mind to proving everyone wrong; he recalls having learned “If I got knocked down, I had to get up and keep fighting… Every night, I got knocked down. Every night I got back up again” (Benavidez & Craig, 1995, p. 105). What is key to MSG Benavidez’s statement was that he ‘had learned’ the skill we now refer to as resilience. Resilience is the result of skills individuals can learn and develop; it is a modern idea that stems from increasing awareness of the human ability to adapt positively and overcome stressful or traumatic events (Sinclair & Britt, 2013). Everyone experiences stress; the ability to maintain or quickly return to their prestress level of psychological functioning is indicative of resilience (Sinclair & Britt, 2013).
Soldiers must be resilient to perform their duties and maintain their physical and mental health. Department of the Army (2014) recognizes that resilience in Soldiers is directly linked to Soldier and unit readiness. Readiness is critical to the Army’s ability to accomplish its mission “To deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the Joint Force” (Milley & Esper, 2018, para. 4). Robust resilience training during basic training and throughout military service will improve military readiness and long-term health of service members.
The Power of Resilience
Research shows that most individuals are not “emotionally or psychologically prepared” (Reivich & Shatté, 2002, p. 1) to deal with adversity. The first fifteen years of sustained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in increased rates of suicide, diagnosed behavioral health disorders, divorce, and pain medicine dependency within the ranks of Soldiers deployed to those locations (Chumnoeur, 2017). These are prime examples of the inability to effectively cope or deal with adversity. Another more recent, example is the large groups of individuals significantly impacted by stress-induced conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic (Manchia et al., 2022). Chumnoeur (2017) states that faced with “increased professional, social, and familial stressors, Soldiers need new and better tools to cope and persevere” (p. 1). The Army identified resilience as the tool to equip Soldiers with and began developing programs to promote and train it.
History of Army Resilience
In response to increased awareness and studies on resilience, the military began developing cognitive-behavioral-based programs. Many clinicians successfully use cognitive-behavioral approaches when treating “depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention, and other diverse behavioral and psychological problems” (Harms et al., 2013, p. 7). One of the initial cognitive-behavioral-based programs in the Army was the Battlemind training program.
Battlemind Training Program
Battlemind is a term coined by former U.S. Army Europe commander, General Crosby Saint, in the early 1990s (Orsingher et al., 2008). General Saint identified the need for Soldiers to be prepared mentally for both deployments and reintegration home following those deployments (Orsingher et al., 2008). From 2003 to 2004 a team at Walter Reed Army Institute for Research collected and analyzed data from deployments and redeployments. The resulting needs analysis led to the creation of the Battlemind training program which the Army launched in 2007 (Orsingher et al., 2008). Battlemind broke training down into three distinct ‘cycles’: life-cycle, deployment-cycle, and Soldier-support training (Orsingher et al., 2008). Each cycle of Battlemind training targeted a different aspect of Soldiers’ lives. Life-cycle training promoted career-long resilience and worked to eliminate stigma from behavioral healthcare (Orsingher et al., 2008). Deployment-cycle training focused on stressors specific to deployment; and Soldier-support training centered around Soldiers, their Families, and the military community (Orsingher et al., 2008).
Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness
In 2008, then Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Casey established the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program; a program designed to develop resilience and improve performance (Feeney, 2013). The intent of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness was to proactively address the challenges Soldiers were facing due to continued operations, and frequent deployments, in Iraq and Afghanistan (Feeney, 2013). The Army renamed the program Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2) in 2012 and broadened its services to provide Soldiers’ Families and Army Civilians resources to promote and build resilience (Department of the Army [DA], 2014).
How the Army Trains Resilience
CSF2 “represents an organization-wide effort by Army leadership towards enhancing Soldier resilience and psychological health” and operates on the belief that resilience and psychological health is not “a pre-set or inflexible trait, but instead can be taught, practiced, and developed over time” (Harms et al., 2013, p. 3). CSF2 offers a variety of services to Soldiers, Army Civilians, and their Families, designed to enhance physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family strengths; the Army classifies these as the ‘Five Dimensions of Strength’ (DA, 2014).
Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness
CSF2 trains resilience using four main delivery methods: online, institutional, organization, and the CSF2 training center. Online training is located on the ArmyFit website at https://ArmyFit.army.mil. The Azimuth Check, previously called Global Assessment Tool, is located on this site and is a requirement for all Soldiers to take annually or within sixty days of returning from deployment. The Azimuth Check is an individual assessment that measures emotional, social, spiritual, and family strength based on the individual’s responses to survey questions. Following the assessment, Soldiers receive resources to strengthen each of the measured areas. In addition to providing Soldiers resources to strengthen measured areas, researchers use confidentially aggregated results of the Azimuth Check in investigations and analysis (Vergun, 2012). Data analysis from the Azimuth Check allows researchers to identify trends and whether Master Resilience Training (MRT), the Army’s current resilience training, is effective.
Institutional training is formal resilience training that occurs during initial military training and at each level of primary military education for all enlisted Soldiers, warrant officers, and commissioned officers. Organization training consists of unit and community resilience training directed and/or available to Soldiers, Department of the Army Civilians, and Family members. Finally, CSF2 training centers offer MRT level one and level two training, executive level training, and performance enhancement training (DA, 2014).
Master Resilience Training
MRT is based on the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Resiliency Program and incorporates elements from the Battlemind training program. MRT is a key element of what was Comprehensive Soldier Fitness and is now CSF2 (Harms et al., 2013). Commanders utilize MRT level one trained individuals to conduct MRT within their organizations. Department of the Army (2014), which covers CSF2, directs commanders to appoint an MRT level one graduate per company-sized organization. These MRTs teach the MRT skills in deployment-cycle support training (taught pre and post-deployment) and annually, throughout the year, to everyone in the unit.
MRT consists of six competencies that serve as the foundation for improving resilience and fourteen skills that help develop and build those competencies. The six MRT competencies are: self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character, and connection. The fourteen MRT skills are: goal setting, hunt the good stuff, activating events-thoughts-consequences (ATC), energy management, avoid thinking traps, detect icebergs, problem solving, put it in perspective, mental games, real time resilience, identify character strengths in self and others, character strengths challenges and leadership, assertive communication, and affective praise and active constructive responding. By building these skills, individuals learn to recognize and understand their own, and others’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Each of the fourteen MRT skills target, build upon, and enhance, one or more of the six competencies (Department of the Army [DA], n.d.a). Cultivating each of the competencies promotes self-awareness, and insight is the gateway for change (DA, n.d.a). When individuals challenge their beliefs and allow themselves to gain a more accurate picture of situations, they become better problem solvers, are less controlled by their emotions, and respond better during stressful situations (DA, n.d.a). In addition to the skills trained in MRT, meditation, breathing, and sleep, are also practices proven to bolster resilience.
Meditation is a practice of deep, intentional focus dating back thousands of years (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). Research shows that meditation reduces stress, increases resiliency, improves sleep, helps with psychological disorders, and promotes overall health (Chumnoeur, 2017). The military uses two meditation programs: mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based mind fitness training. These programs deal with subconscious adverse mental patterns that “perpetuate stress, unhappiness, depression and dissatisfaction” (Chumnoeur, 2017, p. 40). By recognizing negative patterns, individuals can consciously redirect their thoughts and focus on the present; once individuals build the skills of cognitive and emotional awareness, managing previously unconscious responses becomes possible (Chumnoeur, 2017). Deliberate and controlled breathing is often a part the practice of meditation.
Like meditation, breathing – specifically pranayama, is correlated to positive effects on stress and psychological disorders by altering how the brain processes information (Novotny & Kravitz, 2007). Pranayama, which is voluntary breath control, is also positively associated with asthma, immune system functioning, and high blood pressure (Novotny & Kravitz, 2007). Deliberate breathing slows down specific physiological processes “that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells” (Novotny & Kravitz, 2007, para. 9). This slowing of physiological processes improves the processing ability of the central nervous system and reaction time (Bamne, 2017). Both meditation and breathing are tools individuals can utilize to promote sleep.
Individuals require between seven to eight hours of sleep every twenty-four hours (Department of the Army [DA], n.d.b). Sleep is necessary for brain growth, restoration, and information processing (DA, n.d.b). It is during sleep that the brain develops new connections, repairs damage, forms memories, and processes newly received information (DA, n.d.b). Adequate sleep promotes psychological health, physical well-being, concentration, understanding, and memory (DA, n.d.b). Inadequate sleep for short periods of time can result in poor concentration, impaired memory, lower production of testosterone, less emotional control, and ineffective decision-making (DA, n.d.b). Obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease all have links to long-term sleep loss (DA, n.d.b). Additionally, inadequate sleep is associated with lowered resilience, higher stress, and increased behavioral health symptoms (Verster et al., 2018). Without adequate sleep, individuals are unable to perform at their mental and physical peak (DA, n.d.b).
How to Improve Resilience Training
MRT competencies, meditation, breathing, and sleep, are all teachable skills Soldiers can apply throughout their military careers and once they transition beyond the military. While MRT is a mandated annual training requirement for every Soldier, the Army must impress upon its leaders the critical impact resilience has on the force. Sinclair and Britt (2013) state that “issues associated with mental health can be every bit as devastating as physical health problems” (p. 85). Resilience skills training must become more than check-the-box training. Mental fitness training should become as much a part of the duty day as physical fitness training currently is (Thomas & Albright, 2018). Regular inculcation of resilience skills leads to neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the idea that “any repeated experience changes the brain and nervous system” (Thomas & Albright, 2018, p. 234); the more individuals perform a task, the better they become at it because it changes their brain structure in ways that support the activity. Neuroplasticity is strong during initial entry training (IET) due to the total immersive “learning-by-doing” (Thomas & Albright, 2018, p. 33) experience Soldiers encounter. Thomas and Albright (2018) explain how the Army has missed the mark by not leveraging the neuroplasticity opportunities of IET to establish a solid foundation for resiliency practices. Skills Soldiers learn during IET are among the most durable (Thomas & Albright, 2018). Yet, IET and one station unit training currently include less than six hours of resilience training (Department of the Army, 2022).
On October 25, 2012, then Army Vice Chief of Staff General Lloyd J. Austin III said “The greatest asset of the United States Army aren’t our tanks or our helicopters or our sophisticated weapon systems. They are our people. You are what make ours the best and most powerful military in the world” (Vergun, 2013, para. 1). General Austin recognized that without people, the Army is ineffective. Ironically, despite resilience ensuring overall well-being through preventative measures, the Soldiers General Austin referred to receive less resilience training than weapons training. In IET Soldiers receive a minimum of ninety-two hours of training with their rifle before their first attempt to qualify (Sincard, 2022). Soldiers who fail qualification receive additional training before attempting qualification again (Sincard, 2022). Until a Soldier qualifies with their weapon, they do not graduate IET. If the Army invested as much time and emphasis on resilience as it does other areas of training, both the organization and the Soldier would benefit.
Impact of Resilience
Resilience skills are applicable across a myriad of circumstances and environments in life (Thomas & Albright, 2018). Not only does resilience promote perseverance and growth following challenges, but it is also crucial in moments of chaos that require quick, hard decisions (Reivich & Shatté, 2002). By cultivating resilience skills, individuals can learn how to engage in practiced techniques when needed, teaching themselves to be more resilient when stressful situations occur (Thomas & Albright, 2018). During high or chronic stress, memory, learning, decision-making, task management, and negotiating complex environments all become impaired which degrades combat effectiveness (Sinclair & Britt, 2013). Resilience training has the potential to improve both “individual and collective performance during fast-changing, complex, and uncertain military missions” (Thomas & Albright, 2018, pp. 233-234).
The benefits of resilience extend beyond military operations. Along with in-the-moment impairments, the effects of increased blood pressure and cortisol from heightened and chronic stress also result in a higher risk for stroke, diabetes, and heart attack (Wilkerson, 2020). There is a correlation between resilience and lower levels of the initial stress response, as well as a quicker return to the prestressed state (Thomas & Albright, 2018). Resilience is also associated with reduced drinking and substance abuse problems (Harms et al., 2013).
Most notable is the impact of resilience on behavioral health. From 2016 to 2020, providers diagnosed 456,293 active-duty members of the armed forces with a mental health disorder (Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division [AFHSD], 2021). Behavioral health issues resulted in the greatest number of hospital bed days and the second-highest cause of medical appointments for active-duty members in 2020 (AFHSD, 2021). Stress negatively impacts the immune system and the sleep-wake cycle, which play a role in behavioral health issues (Jamison, 1999). Resilience skills offset these negative impacts through more effective stress management and response. Individuals who receive MRT skills training exhibit more adaptability and coping skills and have more friendships (Harms et al., 2013).
The Army has developed and implemented programs like Battlemind training, CSF2, and MRT because it recognizes Soldiers are its most valuable asset and resilience benefits Soldiers personally and professionally. Individuals possess the ability to learn and develop resilience skills to effectively respond to, and manage, stress. Resilience skills, like those supporting MRT competencies, meditation, breathing, and sleep contribute to Soldiers’ ability to perform optimally and accomplish the mission, and to their overall health. By conducting more robust resilience training during IET, Soldiers establish a solid foundation on which to continue to develop resilience skills that will serve them throughout their military career and beyond. Resilience directly impacts readiness, and readiness directly impacts the Army’s ability to accomplish its mission.
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MSG Jessica Lam joined the U.S. Army in July 1999 as a Military Police Soldier. She has served across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. in duty positions that range from Army corrections, Drill Sergeant, antiterrorism officer, physical security officer, First Sergeant, and numerous staff positions. MSG Lam holds a Master’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management and is currently a student at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.