American soldiers are to undergo training in mental toughness or "resiliency" as part of the Army's larger "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness" program, that aims to ensure troops' mental toughness matches their physical toughness.

According to a bulletin posted on 19 August, the first part of the program has already started: some 100 unit leaders and drill sergeants have just completed the first of two classes in learning to teach "master resilience training" to their units. They take the second class in November.

The classes are taught at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where Martin Seligman, renowned for his work on optimism and positive thinking, heads the Positive Psychology Center.

According to an AFP news agency report, the classes draw on over 20 years of Seligman's research and teach soldiers how to change the way they think, learn to apply optimism to problem,s and avoid getting trapped in self-defeating thoughts.

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness told the press that the soldier trainers are:

"Learning all the different thinking skills, and how to impart them to other people."

She said resiliency training will help soldiers put worries about money, relationships, health and even tragedy on the battlefield into perspective.

Another part of the program is self-guided learning, and soldiers will also undergo online assessments during the basic training and then every two years afterwards.

Soldiers coming into the Army will start straight away as part of basic training, while those already in will start in the middle of their career.

Mental fitness is like physical fitness: life-long and ongoing, said Cornum.

"It is not something that you can do once, any more than you can get physically fit by one trip to the gym. This is not an individual single event. It is a way of looking at your psychological health as important as your physical health," she explained.

"Resilience is a way of thinking -- you apply optimistic thinking to a problem," said Cornum.

She gave the example of when you ask someone out on a date and they say "no". The resilient thinker will say to themselves "their loss" and "I'll do better next time", instead of the self-defeating "nobody will ever like me", or "I am worthless".

"It teaches you to remember that problems are temporary, that they are local," said Cornum explaining that while some people are naturally resistant thinkers, others can become so with training.

"There's a pile of people out there that just pick the first thing that comes to mind," she said.

Cornum said every platoon sergeant and drill sergeant will undergo the master training. She said it is just another way of teaching by example in the operational environment, how to deal with fear, and disappointment.

"It's tools, thinking tools, how not to fall into thinking traps or catastrophic thinking," said Cornum.

Cornum, a physician and soldier with over 30 years of military service, is no stranger to battle stress herself, and probably knows more than most, what it's like to have one's mental toughness challenged.

Over the course of her career she has received many decorations, including a Purple Heart, and she has written a book, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, about her experiences in the Gulf War, including what happened during eight days in captivity.

She was serving as a flight surgeon when the helicopter she was in was shot down, killing five of the eight crew members. When she was captured by Iraqi soldiers she had a bullet in her shoulder, two broken arms, and a knee injury that prevented her from standing up. She was also sexually assaulted by one of the captors.

"What I learned in those Iraqi bunkers and prison cells is that the experience doesn't have to be devastating, that it depends on you," Cornum wrote in her book.

Main source: US Army News Service.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD