Classes Teach Soldiers To Be 'Army Strong'

Two years ago, the U.S. Army launched a program to teach soldiers how to be emotionally and psychologically strong. This week, the Army released a review of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Host Rachel Martin speaks with the program's director, Brig. Gen. James Pasquarette, and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ballard, a resiliency trainer in the program, about what it takes to prepare troops mentally for combat.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than a million U.S. soldiers have come home from Iraq or Afghanistan over the last decade. Many bring back with them the trauma of war. So a couple of years ago, the Army launched a program to strengthen soldiers' mental and psychological fitness. The Army recently released a review of that program.

Here to talk about it is Brigadier General James Pasquarette, he's the director of the program, and Sergeant First Class Michael Ballard who went through the program himself and now works training other soldiers. They both join me in the studio in Washington, D.C.

Gentlemen, thanks so much for coming in.

SERGEANT 1ST CLASS MICHAEL BALLARD: Thank you.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES PASQUARETTE: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: I want to start with you General Pasquarette. You recently took over as director of the program just a month ago. But can you walk us back? How did the program come to be? Was there some kind of wake-up call where the Army realized that there was a problem?

PASQUARETTE: We've never fought a war this long in the nation's history. And I think what we found in about 2006 or '07, the psychological toll it was taking on our soldiers and their families was starting to weigh us down.

MARTIN: So you were seeing higher rates of PTSD...

PASQUARETTE: Definitely, sure.

MARTIN: ...suicide.

PASQUARETTE: Yes. You know, I think that everybody has seen in the papers and probably these shows where our suicide statistics increased over the last decade. They have roughly leveled off, I believe. But there's still nowhere where we are happy with them. And although this is not a suicide prevention program, we think in the long-term this will help on these adverse outcomes of PTSD, suicide, and other high-risk adverse behaviors.

MARTIN: Sergeant Michael Ballard, I want to bring you into the conversation.

BALLARD: Yes.

MARTIN: The program is called a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program. And the term that the Army uses a lot is making soldiers more resilient. Sergeant Ballard, can you give us a sense of how literally you can teach resilience here? Are there exercises that you go through?

BALLARD: Right. One of the things is what we call Hunt the Good Stuff. And it's something that we can do everyday and it helps to build our optimism. Research shows that if you're an optimistic person you're going to live longer, you're going to be happier. I mean isn't that what grandma always said? You know, grandma used always said count your blessings and look at those things.

So now, we're teaching soldiers to look for those things. Something as simple as I was going out, I have my hands full and this person saw that and they ran over to the door and opened it up for me.

PASQUARETTE: Yeah. It works, too. I mean I did it I did the Hunt the Good Stuff for 10 days there and it was - it was supposed to...

MARTIN: When they said that to you - when they said - were you a general at the time? What was your rank?

PASQUARETTE: I was, yeah.

MARTIN: You are general?

PASQUARETTE: Right, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, so they turn to you, the trainers and say, OK, General, Hunt the Good Stuff. Find a good thing in your life today.

PASQUARETTE: I did it...

MARTIN: Did you roll your eyes?

PASQUARETTE: Listen, if you don't reflect on it you don't realize there's good things that happen to you every day. And if you're not careful with the stress we put soldiers under, they can really gravitate to the negative things in their world.

I would say General Corelli had a great quote...

MARTIN: The vice chief of staff...

PASQUARETTE: Yeah, General Corelli, the vice chief, he had a great quote about what the average 24-year-old soldier - what he's doing these days is, first of all, he's been in the Army about six years. He's bought a car and wrecked it. He's married and has challenges there. He's deployed two or three times. He's responsible for a dozen soldiers - overseeing their training and lives. And, by the way, he makes less than $40,000 a year.

So, there's just a lot of stress in that person's life, whether he's in combat and getting shot at or not.

MARTIN: But, General, it sounds like these folks are learning how to be more introspective, to ask more questions about what's happening to them. If you're in combat in a war zone, do you want people to be asking those kinds of questions?

PASQUARETTE: Well, we've critics of the program. Some of the concerns that have been stated is that we're just trying to just make soldiers will feel happy all the time, and that's not something that combat is about. And the second one is we're trying to make soldiers that have no feelings; that when they see someone killed or they kill somebody in combat in a situation, that they will not have any feelings about that.

That is not what Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is about. What we are trying to do here is to allow soldiers to make sense of what is happening, focus on what they can control, and not catastrophize(ph) and go into a downward spiral.

MARTIN: What do you say privately to someone who thinks there's a stigma associated with going through this training?

PASQUARETTE: Well, I would not say there is a stigma. There's just - it's hard for soldiers to sign up for something that deals with what's between your ears. We're really into physical fitness. And however you're wired in your brain, that's - I'm going to deal with it and there's treatment on the far end. And as I said in the beginning, we can't do that anymore.

MARTIN: How can you know that someone has been made more resilient?

PASQUARETTE: We have a - it's a test our soldiers take. We've had over 1.8 million soldiers or people take it; most all of them soldiers, although it's open to family members and the Department of Army civilians. And we believe for well over 90 percent of those responses are the soldiers being honest. The key is that it's anonymous. Nobody else can see it but the soldier. But we can see the data.

And we're starting to see an upward tick in the units and soldiers - in the aggregate sense - that had the benefit of this training. So, it's preliminary. There's more to be done on this, but we're encouraged on where it's going. And we're going to continue to work hard on this.

MARTIN: Have you looked at any correlating data on rates of PTSD or suicides or domestic violence?

PASQUARETTE: That's our next report. It's going to be out this summer.

MARTIN: How much has the - what's the budget for the program? How much does it cost?

PASQUARETTE: Well, we have spent about 90 million dollars on it since its inception a few years ago. And I think we have about 40 million that's committed to it this year.

MARTIN: Any indication as to whether or not the funding will be there in the future?

PASQUARETTE: Like every program - and the military's reviewed every year - this is not, Rachel, something tied to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are those who believe this is just a combat program. This is a program that is long-term. And it's my intention and belief that it will continue to be funded and be a part of the Army for years to come.

MARTIN: Brigadier General James Pasquarette. He's the director of the program of the U.S. Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, and Sergeant First Class Michael Ballard is a trainer in that program.

Thanks so much for coming in.

BALLARD: Thank you for having us.

PASQUARETTE: Thanks, Rachel, for having us over.

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