Army Trains For Battle For Mental Health

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Host Liane Hansen speaks to NPR's Daniel Zwerdling about the Army's new plan to train soldiers for a mental battle — against depression, PTSD, and other war-related mental ailments.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The United States Army is about to do something the military has never tried. According to the chief of staff, all soldiers - from private to general - will be trained to understand their own feelings, just as they study how to wage war.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has reported extensively on troops who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious mental health problems, and he joins us now. Hi, Danny.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Hey, Liane.

HANSEN: So, how does the army plan to do this and why?

ZWERDLING: Let's start with the why. As you know, huge numbers of troops keep coming back from the wars with serious mental health problems. The Army's own surveys suggest at least 20 percent of the troops have symptoms of something like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, you know, serious problems like that.

HANSEN: So, quickly doing the math, if roughly 1.6 million troops have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, then…

ZWERDLING: Yeah, that's 20 percent. So, that means well over 300,000 young men and women have come home with depression, PTSD. So, the Army's chief of staff says they need to train soldiers from now on to be emotionally resilient - and the Army loves this term, Liane - emotional resiliency.

HANSEN: But how do you train soldiers to be emotionally resilient?

ZWERDLING: Well, you definitely do not do what they've been doing up until now. I talked to the general who's organizing this whole program - her name is Rhonda Cornum. She said most - and this is the general talking - she said most of the training the Army has done in the past to deal with problems like PTSD, she said they were basically a flop.

HANSEN: Oh, you're being so diplomatic.

ZWERDLING: No, I mean, listen to this example: three years ago, you might remember, I went to Fort Carson, Colorado, and did a series which showed that soldiers coming back with serious mental health problems, number one, couldn't get adequate help - worse, the commanders were punishing them for being weak basically.

HANSEN: And those reports were really troubling.

ZWERDLING: And partly as a result of those reports, commanders in the Army said, okay, we've learned our lesson. From now on we're going to train every soldier to spot PTSD and other mental health problems and then get adequate help. And they said we're going to start right here at Fort Carson with a pilot program, and they proudly invited me to sit in.

HANSEN: And?

ZWERDLING: Liane, it was pathetic. And that's not my word. I sent - I recorded - it was a one-hour session. Soldiers came into the room, sat down, watched the video for five minutes, listened to a lecture - that was it. And I sent it to half a dozen mental health specialists across the country who deal with the military. They said it was pathetic. That was their word.

HANSEN: But now things are changing.

ZWERDLING: Rhonda Cornum, the general, says she's going to make sure they change. The Army has told her she can take a totally different approach. And she told me the other day, look, all these one-hour lectures the Army has tried in the past were doomed from the start because - here's her analogy: she says can you imagine going up to somebody who's overweight and totally unfit and saying, hey, you want to run a marathon? Just work out in the gym for an hour.

HANSEN: Yeah, right. Then run the marathon and get a heart attack.

ZWERDLING: Exactly. And she says, you know, there's no way you can be emotionally fit with a one-hour lecture any more than, you know, the example we just talked about. So, she says instead what you do is you start slowly. You train every few days, every week. You know, you train over months, and eventually you can run a marathon.

HANSEN: So, will the Army train soldiers emotionally the way runners train for a marathon?

ZWERDLING: That's what she wants. They're going to start in basic training. So, once a week soldiers are going to get a mental health class, just like they'll go to the gun range. And after basic training they're going to take all kinds of sort of continuing education online in other courses, like how do you control your anger and anxiety, how do you have healthy interpersonal relationships. And Cornum says here's the key: if you want to be promoted throughout your career in the military, you're going to have to do a certain number of hours every year in this emotional resiliency, otherwise forget it.

HANSEN: When does the program start?

ZWERDLING: She says October 1.

HANSEN: NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Thanks a lot, Danny.

ZWERDLING: Thanks, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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