From Trauma to Growth: The Resilient Soldier

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

War and other forms of violence create physical and emotional scars that have challenged health care providers for decades.   We’ve worked with war veterans who struggle with unemployment, broken relationships, drug addiction, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).   Many of us in the field of mental health, who work to repair the emotional wounds of soldiers,  have wished the military would put more resources into assessment and prevention of psychological harm.

The U.S. Army is now developing The Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program (CSF).  This program plans to identify the psychological strengths and vulnerabilities of soldiers, identify those in need of basic training or advanced training, and then implement the required training.  Psychologists, working in conjunction with the military, developed a test called the Global Assessment Tool (GAT), to assess the emotional, social, and spiritual fitness of soldiers.  This tool measures things like positive and negative emotions, optimism, flexible thinking and character traits like wisdom, courage and justice.  The GAT also looks at social fitness by measuring levels of trust and friendship and  family relationships.

Spiritual fitness posed a tricky problem for researchers.  Because of our U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment rights, the U.S. Army does not want to measure or encourage religious behavior.  However, researchers have established clear psychological benefits of a sense of purpose and meaning.  Religious people find meaning and purpose from their religious traditions, but others find meaning and purpose from secular reasoning.  Researchers agreed on the term spiritual fitness to describe ones sense of meaning and purpose.  Researchers aim to help soldiers develop resilience and achieve psychological growth through their military experience.

Researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun coined the term posttraumatic growth to describe positive psychological changes that some soldiers experience after trauma.  The philosopher, Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us strong.”  Some victims of trauma do report an increase of psychological strength.  Tedeschi and Calhoun developed a test, called the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, to assess the growth of survivors of trauma. (You can click on the link to take the test).   This test looks at five areas of growth found in survivors:

  • Renewed appreciation of life
  • New possibilities
  • Enhanced personal strength
  • Improved relationships with others
  • Spiritual change

Researchers are quick to point out that they don’t recommend trauma as a way to grow, nor do they minimize the emotional damage of war and other types of trauma.  Their goal is to help foster resilience in soldiers, to minimize the damage from trauma and maximize the potential growth from the experience.  Another concern is to avoid creating unreasonable expectations for soldiers who may feel shame when their experience of trauma proves shattering.

Another part of the CSF is the U.S. Army Master Resilience Trainer (MRT) course.  This 10-day course teaches noncommissioned officers how to most effectively handle the stresses of war so that these officers can then teach these skills to others.  The training teaches soldiers to think more flexibly, connect well with others and regulate their emotions.  The second module of the training includes concepts we use in our Manage Anger Daily training.  Soldiers learn how their beliefs and thoughts create feelings that are productive or destructive.  They learn to challenge beliefs that weaken coping skills such as, “Asking for help is a sign of weakness.”  (In fact, asking for help predicts resilience).

When the military performs large-scale testing and training like this, the civilian population benefits enormously.  The results of these programs will provide valuable information to help people suffering from life-threatening illness, victims of violent crime and other traumatic events.  The benefits will likely last for generations to come if they can reduce the ravages of war and improve the psychological strength of a generation of soldiers.