Heroes

11.09.15 6:00 AM ET

Helping Soldiers Transcend Trauma

Rhonda Cornum survived captivity in the Iraq War—and now she’s helping her fellow soldiers overcome trauma and transform their lives.

When army surgeon Rhonda Cornum came to, she wondered, Am I alive?

Her Black Hawk helicopter had been shot down over the Iraqi desert in 1991. She crawled out of the wreck only to see five Iraqi soldiers towering above her with pointed rifles. Cornum, dazed from blood loss and with both arms broken, was helpless when her captors subjected her to a mock execution, sexually assaulted her, and kept her prisoner in a bunker for a week. Her experience included nearly all the elements psychiatric manuals list as likely causes for posttraumatic stress—and yet, after her release, she surprised psychiatrists by reflecting on the things that had improved. “I became a better doctor, a better parent, a better commander, probably a better person.”

Only a decade later did she find a name for her experience when she discovered the research of University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun: Posttraumatic growth─the suprising benefits trauma survivors from all walks of life find in overcoming traumatic events.

Contrary to public opinion, posttraumatic growth is much more common than posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As many as 90 percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life, deeper compassion, or an intensified connection to their heart’s purpose. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. We need to actively work towards positive change, and we need the right tools and support in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough.

Therefore Rhonda Cornum made it her life’s mission to help other soldiers heal from traumatic experiences. More than ever before, the U.S. Army is dealing with staggering numbers of soldiers who come back from war depressed, angry, and anxious. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to war, so we better figure out urgently how to help them.

Together with resilience specialists, Rhonda initiated the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program in 2009, shifting away from a focus on physical fitness to an emphasis on psychological resilience. Every single U.S. soldier participates in the $160-million program and trains in strategies such as self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strength of character, and connection.

When I participated in the army resilience boot camp in Philadelphia for my book Bouncing Forward, I was surprised to watch the soldiers start the day with mindfulness meditation. Because the most common PTSD treatment—medication and psychotherapy—only works for about half of the soldiers, the army is experimenting with alternative methods, and meditation has proven to be one of the most promising pathways to significantly reducing PTSD symptoms.

But even more importantly, the program calls for a tectonic shift of perception. The army has recognized the dangers of projecting only strength and has ditched much of its old Rambo rhetoric that a soldier needs to be invincible and invulnerable. In fact, a significant part of the training consists of teaching the soldiers to communicate openly, admit fears, and reach out to seek help. Trying desperately “to get it together” can be fatal.

The soldiers are more than happy that the issues are addressed, but they shared with me quite specific concerns about their mission: “The American people are totally disconnected from the reality of the war and the price we pay.”

I can’t help but think this plays a role in the results: After running the resilience program for five years, the surveys show a significant decline in substance abuse, and an uptick in optimism, good coping, adaptability, and character strength. It’s a success, but the correlation between resilience training and a decline in PTSD or depression has not proven solid.

Psychologist Ann Masten, who grew up in an army family, cautions, “Resilience depends on the systems we are connected to, the military as a whole, our families. A lot of what makes the difference for people is the support they are receiving.”

Realistically, there are bigger issues at play here than a boot camp can solve: While Rhonda Cornum was able to find meaning in her mission, several of the soldiers I spoke with signed up with the army after 9/11, motivated to defend their country, but they now find themselves in a riot of doubt. What exactly did they risk their lives for? Their anger is palpable. Vietnam vets suffered from similar frustration; some said getting spit at by Americans after their return was more traumatizing than being shot at in the war. Yet this “meaning-making,” as Tedeschi calls it, is crucial for integrating our experiences. If our suffering makes sense, we are much more able to not only bear it, but grow from it.

So resilience and posttraumatic growth are not just tasks for the soldier’s psyche (or any survivor’s, for that matter). That we, as a country, leave alone the very soldiers we sent into war makes us “complicit in a plague of American disengagement”, as The New York Times wrote. How we, as a culture, as friends and family, welcome, support, and integrate the survivors matters hugely.

This is significant: We can help our soldiers and our fellow survivors to bounce forward. In fact, this is our duty after they’ve done theirs.

Michaela Haas, PhD, is the author of the newly-released Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs (Atria/Enliven, 2015)