Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may ultimately affect as many as 35 percent of soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, researchers from Stanford University and the Naval Postgraduate School estimate in a September 2009 study.
Given the prevalence of PTSD and other health problems, a new program to help soldiers deal with issues before they arise is “an innovative step the Army has taken, one that makes good sense,” says Dr. Kenneth Pargament, psychology.
He’s talking about the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, which is being implemented in an effort to boost troops’ resilience. The program’s developer, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, has articulated several types of resilience that are the subjects of Web-based self-improvement courses, including one on spiritual resilience created by Pargament and clinical psychology graduate students at BGSU.
A national leader in the psychology of spirituality, Pargament was asked to join the project by a colleague from the University of Miami (Fla.) with connections to Seligman. He went to Miami in May to meet with Army representatives, among them Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the CSF program director. Cornum had been captured in Iraq and emerged from the experience convinced that soldiers should be trained to deal with stresses, Pargament said.
Even if they’re not in combat, soldiers undoubtedly face major life stresses, he noted, citing separation from family and arduous training as challenges for anyone. The addition of combat presents more issues that should be anticipated, he said, although helping people be more resilient before they face life stresses hasn’t typically been emphasized in America’s treatment-oriented health care system.
With the Army’s approval, and feedback this fall from West Point, military chaplains and ROTC cadets at BGSU, Pargament and the graduate students—who worked on the project in a class—developed the spiritual resilience material for the online presentation. “We’re at the forefront of this kind of work, so we were able to move pretty quickly on it,” he said.
The presentation starts by introducing soldiers to the idea of struggles of the human spirit and then offers training about resources that can be helpful when struggles arise, the BGSU psychologist explained. Spirituality is defined broadly so the material is applicable to people from different religious traditions, or none at all, he added.
Individual segments focus on such topics as making meaning out of challenging life situations; rituals, and how to use them as help in the midst of struggles, and how to access spiritual support—from chaplains and other resources—during difficult times.
Soldiers are offered actual resources that have been shown to help people facing profound struggles, based upon research at Bowling Green and elsewhere. For instance, research has indicated that those who can find some reflection and peace amid turmoil fare better, so one of the training segments discusses contemplation and meditation, Pargament said.
The CSF program will be introduced to 1.1 million active-duty soldiers, reservists and National Guard members. “We think there will be a receptive audience for it,” Pargament said, expressing hope that the private, online nature of the program will help make it accessible and meaningful to participants.
“I think of it as a step in the right direction,” with potential for many possible spinoffs, he noted. “It’s an honor to Bowling Green that we were asked to contribute.”