11.05.09

Anywhere but Fort Hood

The Texas base wasn't supposed to be the scene of a massacre: It just launched a "resiliency" center, as part of a bold Army plan to reverse a spike in post-combat disorders.

This was not the Army post where soldiers should have been on guard against a coordinated massacre by another soldier. Fort Hood this fall had just launched a new “Resiliency Campus.” It is the Army’s first such facility, designed to help soldiers and their families become “inoculated” against the sense of emotional helplessness, as they are routed through multiple redeployments. Many return to Fort Hood after being shot at or shooting others for a year in Iraq or Afghanistan, only to start retraining for the next combat deployment, in a year or less.

Their superiors acknowledge these warriors are engaged in “perpetual warfare”—but a massacre of soldiers by another soldier wasn’t supposed to happen at Fort Hood.

Until the shooting Thursday, which left 13 dead, 30 wounded, and the gunman injured but alive, the Fort Hood Resiliency Campus was a proud experiment as part of a massive turnaround in Army training, ordered by Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, in an attempt to reverse the dramatic spike in suicides, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and family breakup that is sapping so many returning combat veterans.

Their superiors acknowledge these warriors are engaged in “perpetual warfare”—but a massacre of soldiers by another soldier wasn’t supposed to happen at Fort Hood.

Col. Bill Rabena, who oversees the Resiliency Campus, was particularly proud of its Spiritual Fitness Center, designed to reduce anxiety, depression, and the uncertainty around redeployments. Col. Rabena promised that his center would address “the mind, body, and spirit.”

It didn’t work for the gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan.

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The darkest news yet from the shootings of as many as 43 soldiers is that Hasan, 39, was an Army psychiatrist. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he had treated soldiers returning from war with combat stress and PTSD, and according to his cousin Hader Hasan, had heard horrifying stories. He had not seen combat himself, but, according to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, was facing his first deployment overseas, to Iraq or Afghanistan, which his cousin described to Fox News’ Shepard Smith as “his worst nightmare.”

The Fort Hood horror is unfolding in the face of a historic change in the Army’s approach to the emotional impact of combat. Last spring, Gen. Casey decided to try a bold experiment in acknowledging the emotional assaults of warfare. Instead of the usual suck-it-up philosophy, the general’s aim is to create an Army that is just as psychologically fit as physically fit. He turned to Martin Seligman, father of “positive psychology,” and had to convince the psychologist to help design an innovative training program. The idea is to move the bell curve of reactions to the “catastrophic stress” of combat, from “post-traumatic stress disorder” to “post-traumatic learned resilience.”

Seligman was aware of the extreme level of pathology showing up in returning veterans from these wars, where “victory” is an outmoded term and waiting for “withdrawal” is like Waiting for Godot. Seligman’s response was: “If you put the emphasis only on those soldiers who break down, you have the tail wagging the dog. We’re already devoting tremendous resources to vets with PTSD. The big picture is the dog. By training the whole force in resilience, you cut down on pathology but you also improve the resilience of the whole force and move the distribution curve toward growth.”

Gen. Casey created a new post, director of comprehensive soldier fitness. He put in charge a woman, Rhonda Cornum, who is the poster child for resilience under catastrophic combat stress. During the Gulf War in 1991, Cornum was asked to pilot a Black Hawk helicopter as the flight surgeon for the 101st Air Assault Division. On the fourth day of the ground war, she was engaged in a combat search-and-rescue when she was shot down and captured in Iraq. For several weeks she was moved from bunker to bunker, sexually molested, and put in one of Saddam’s prisons. Within less than three weeks, the war ended, and she came back to her husband and child with two broken arms and a damaged leg, but in a stable mental state. Gen. Casey made her a general.

Gen. Cornum is set to launch the first Resiliency Training program next Monday in Philadelphia, with 150 soldiers. Ultimately, the Army plans to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take the intensive training, thereby eliminating any stigma. Active-duty soldiers, reservists, and members of the National Guard will all be included. The three main goals of the exercise are to cut down on pathologies, increase resilience of the force overall, and to develop more soldiers whose perspective on participating in the bloody carnage of war can be changed from the fear, guilt, and replays of post-traumatic stress to the confidence and pride of service that could be called “post-traumatic growth.”

The Daily Beast will be following the Resilience Training program.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the lifecycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair, and can be found at gailsheehy.com