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11.11.09

The Sensitive Soldier

Can U.S. troops be rewired to be impervious to trauma? In the wake of Fort Hood, Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum launched a groundbreaking program to eliminate PTSD.

“How am I going to get people to focus not on tragedy, but on resilience?” Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum asks rhetorically as we sit in her Pentagon office. The question is now Gen. Cornum’s mission: She is charged with teaching the Army’s warriors—even in the wake of the homegrown tragedy at Fort Hood—to persevere in the face of any crisis.

Cornum’s program represents a historic shift in the Army’s training philosophy. Instead of lavishing resources on those warriors who have succumbed to post-traumatic stress, depression, drug dependency, DUI, or sought the ultimate escape of suicide, the Army this week began training its “healthy” soldiers in emotional and spiritual fitness.

“We’re devoting a great deal of effort to treating pathology, but 99 percent of people in the Army have normal reactions to fear and trauma. And we have done nothing for these people.”

Cornum is uniquely qualified to be the nation’s new director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. In 1991, as a flight surgeon during the first Gulf War, she was taken prisoner when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. After three days of beatings and humiliations, this mother of a then-14-year-old daughter was released from Iraqi prisons. Her resilience and heroism as a prisoner of war convinced many in the Pentagon that women could indeed serve on the frontlines. And unlike former POWs, Cornum stayed in the military.

The new training program offers soldiers a tool kit of psychological techniques based on years of research. They can be just as useful in facing the fear of battlefield combat as in living room flare-ups. Senior military officers say the chief stressor in our current wars—when spouses and parents can call their warriors on cellphones at any time, day or night—are the fights that lead to family breakdown. But at a much deeper level is the emotional fallout from the nonstop cycling of soldiers through several deployments.

And while Cornum acknowledges there are many hidden traumas for soldiers, she dismisses dwelling on the impact of the Fort Hood shootings. “I don’t think one individual act of murdering tells me anything about the fitness of the 1.1 million people in the force. It’s a terrible tragedy. But there’s no need to engage in catastrophic thinking,” she says brusquely. “Just move on and think about what you can do to make it better.”

As a doctor meeting with other generals in the day-after crisis meeting at the Department of Defense, Cornum did not recommend that any of the soldiers present in the killing room at Fort Hood be given a postponement of their overseas assignments.

“It’s not as if there’s a choice,” she says. “Somebody else would have to go.”

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As of this Monday, Cornum and University of Pennsylvania psychologists Martin Seligman and Karen Reivich began a rigorous 10-day course for 150 mature drill sergeants. These men and women will, in turn, train others who will eventually teach the entire force how to reframe their reactions to the horrors of war. At present, it is estimated that about one-third of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The Army’s new fitness training will emphasize that the same trigger events can actually be an opportunity for “post-traumatic growth.”

Clearly the Army did not stress this kind of emotional fitness training when Cornum joined back in the 1980s. But one suspects she would not have needed such preparation in the first place. “I have always been a daredevil with a disciplined mind,” she says. Fifty years old and still a compact 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, encased in a digital-patterned combat uniform, the general plants one boot on her other knee, leans back, and boasts, “I’ve been jumping off barns and climbing trees since I could walk.” She is also a veteran steeplechase jockey who had to put weights in her jodhpurs to keep her mount on the horse.

Her source of resilience, she says, all comes from her life experiences. In addition to her time as a POW, Cornum has pulled injured soldiers out of wrecked helicopters, has performed surgery on friends in a makeshift emergency room, and has watched some die.

She doesn’t own a TV, and even if she did, she would not have subjected herself to the visual repetition of the carnage at the bloody Texas base. It’s the same way she dealt with 9/11. The only reason she saw that live on TV was because the neurology patients in her waiting room in Bosnia were glued to her office monitor. She thought they were watching some national sports event and stole a peek: “I never watched another minute of footage from 9/11, until the first year anniversary.”

While attending meetings on military health over the years with General George Casey, the Army chief of staff, Cornum planted the idea that the Army needs to be as psychologically fit as it is physically fit. She interested the top brass in focusing on the prevention of mental-health problems rather than treatment after the fact.

“Here’s the problem, sir,” she would say. “We’re devoting a great deal of effort to treating pathology, but 99 percent of people in the Army have normal reactions to fear and trauma. And we have done nothing for these people.”

If you assume, as I did, that training soldiers in emotional and spiritual fitness would be some sort of touchy-feely exercise in spilling the fears and feelings of one’s inner child, you would be very mistaken. Cornum’s training is about getting tougher—and convincing yourself that you will come out of any “kick in the gut,” as Gen. Casey characterized the Fort Hood mass killing, all the stronger for it.

Casey promoted Cornum to general and tasked her with finding a way to toughen up the millennial generation recruits who come to the Army much younger, in developmental age, accustomed to Mom and Dad wrapping them in knee pads and helmets and car seats, and expecting them to call home when they’re out late on a Saturday night.

“They bubble-wrap them,” scoffs Cornum. “That teaches them that just about everything they do is dangerous.” She was particularly appalled at learning a new statistic: Just 30 percent of recruits come into the Army today with a driver’s license. “That means 70 percent don’t get a license as soon as they can,” says the general, in amazement. “Does that mean they still expect Mom and Dad to drive them around?” She plays out this ludicrous notion. “How do they even get pregnant? Does Mommy drive them around while they do it the back of the SUV?”

She sees a disturbing disparity between the coddling of many of today’s Army-age youngsters and the 360-degree dangers they will face in the “persistent conflict” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You can be talking to a sergeant and all of a sudden he’s snipered,” she says. That’s why she sees training in emotional and spiritual toughness, along with family and social resilience, to be every bit as essential as one-arm pushups to keep our military strong.

Driving herself to work at the Pentagon last Friday morning after the gruesome shooting spree by a psychiatrist, Cornum practiced what she preaches. She avoided catastrophic thoughts by thinking back to her time as a POW.

“When I was shot down [and moved from bunker to bunker and finally to one of Saddam’s prisons], people asked, how did I maintain my good attitude and not just implode?” she says. “It was the absolute confidence that the Army was going to come get me. That’s the most important thing that we have—and it isn’t necessarily a core value of the rest of society—which is: ‘Never leave a fallen comrade.’ I was on my way to get somebody else, and got shot down en route. I knew that somebody was going to say yes to coming to find me. They would either be successful or they would turn the whole country into glass looking for me.”

And she matter-of-factly dismisses any notion of PTSD: “No post-trauma. No nightmares. No difficulty relating to my family. No intrusive thoughts.” Having exhausted the list of the most common post-traumatic stress reactions, she acknowledges one chink in her full metal jacket: “I did have some feelings of invincibility.”

Her biggest problem was how to transition to the tedious safety of civilian life. “I went out and bought a new bright red Dodge Stealth,” she boasts, “and ditched a 10-year-old diesel Rabbit that couldn’t go over 55 mph except downhill.” She laughs heartily. “I asked my husband, ‘Is this my version of post-traumatic stress? Driving too fast?’ But I got over it by the end of a year.”

It all sounds too perfect. But Cornum appears to have been born an “invulnerable,” a personality type that psychologists find is rare but somehow protected, perhaps by brain chemistry, from breaking under almost any stress.

“Sometimes you gotta package up your feelings and get on with the mission,” she says. “Then you can let them out when it’s more convenient and deal with them. I let myself cry at memorials.”

Gail Sheehy is a 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