At Ft. Hood, a grim test of resilience
In a windowless cinder-block room at Ft. Hood on Wednesday morning, 11 soldiers closed their eyes and practiced taking deep, slow breaths.
The technique is useful for gaining self-control in stressful situations, explained their instructor.
In the course of the day, the students would practice escaping a wrestling hold while being taunted by fellow soldiers. They would balance a dime on the end of an M16 rifle. They would watch a clip from the movie “Talladega Nights” in which Will Ferrell tries to get into a car with a cougar in the front seat. Such exercises, the Army hopes, will build troops who are not just physically tough but psychologically resilient.
The students would be tested almost immediately. Just over an hour after the class was dismissed, sirens went off across the sprawling military installation. A soldier was on a shooting rampage. Authorities say Spc. Ivan Lopez killed three fellow service members with a handgun and wounded 16 others before shooting himself in the head.
The entire base went on lockdown as dozens of police cars raced to the scene and helicopters swooped overhead. Service members locked their doors and gathered around television sets to try to learn who was attacking, and where they might strike next. “There’s nonstop texting,” said Staff Sgt. Randell Traxler, 30, who only an hour before had been teaching his fellow troops how to keep calm under pressure.
The Army hardly needed another grim reminder of its long struggle to maintain a fighting force that is psychologically healthy. Two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- not to mention the everyday pressures at home -- have left an Army plagued with suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault and substance abuse.
The training at Ft. Hood is part of a $50-million-a-year program launched in 2009 to do for the mind what physical fitness does for the body. Known as Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, it trains 900,000 troops a year in 14 skills aimed at preventing psychological disorders, building resilience and improving performance.
The program has been controversial, with critics saying the Army is spending millions on a training regime whose worth has never been validated with rigorous scientific studies. Nonetheless, it was recently expanded to include families of service members.
Spc. Cody Bishop, a 28-year-old student in Wednesday’s class, said the training would have been helpful on his combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of missions that just go wrong,” he explained. “The thing that broke us down the most was our own minds.”
The skills, though, are also meant for daily life.
Traxler -- one of roughly 20,000 “master resilience trainers” throughout the Army -- encouraged his class to use those skills to calm their nerves during military exams, suppress road rage or get back to work after reading an upsetting email.
Some of the most enthusiastic testimonials for the program have nothing to do with war.
Sgt. Ryan Whitt, 23, was nearly killed in a 2011 motorcycle accident shortly after arriving at Ft. Hood from basic training. He credits his recovery to the resiliency training he received while stuck in bed for months.
“It kept me from giving up on myself,” he said.
He said one especially useful skill -- called “hunt the good stuff” -- allowed him to cherish small triumphs such as finally being able to pull on his socks. Another -- “avoid thinking traps” -- kept him from feeling hopeless about his situation.
Other skills include “assertive communication,” “goal setting,” “energy management” and “mental games.” In 2013, the Army began requiring every soldier to receive training on all 14 skills at least once a year.
Service members are also required to take a test each year to assess social, emotional, spiritual and family fitness. The Army collects the results anonymously, but soldiers can log in to computer modules to work on their deficiencies.
Whitt said he hopes to become a resiliency instructor himself.
Not all soldiers offer that kind of endorsement. Several said they barely remembered the training. One scoffed at it as a feel-good exercise. “I just do what the Army tells me to,” said the soldier, an emergency medical technician who was not authorized to speak about the program on the record.
Not a substitute
Lopez, the gunman, received training in at least some of the resilience skills during the first few weeks after his transfer to Ft. Hood in February, according to Becky Farmer, a spokeswoman for the program. It also is likely that Lopez attended resilience classes at Ft. Bliss, his previous duty station in El Paso, Texas.
“But we don’t know the quality of his training,” Farmer said. “Not all instructors are created equally.”
The fitness training, she added, was never meant as a substitute for mental health care, which Lopez was also receiving.
The details of the shooting are still under investigation, but a variety of factors appear to have been involved. Lopez, who had deployed to Iraq for four months in 2011 but apparently did not see combat, was being treated for anxiety, depression and sleep problems and was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Officials said he was upset that the Army had rejected his request to take a temporary leave to deal with family matters related to his mother’s death, and had quarreled with someone at the base over the issue immediately before the shootings.
The resilience program is based on a field known as positive psychology, which emerged in the 1990s. Unlike clinical psychology, which targets mental illness, it focuses on building strengths and helping people flourish.
The best evidence that psychological resilience can be taught comes from studies involving children. Those who received such training were less likely to develop depression.
Army officials have said that there was no time to conduct similar randomized controlled trials in soldiers before implementing the program Army-wide. After years of war, rates of suicide, depression and PTSD were reaching crisis levels, and the Army was under pressure to act quickly.
For the first few years of the program, the Army did not even track who received the training. It started collecting that data this year.
The Army has portrayed the program as a success based on anecdotal reports and internal reviews, which found that soldiers saw small improvements on some measures of psychological health.
But last month, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine issued a report saying those improvements were not clinically meaningful and that the program had never been properly evaluated. It joined a growing number of critics.
“The spirit of what they had in mind for Comprehensive Soldier Fitness made sense,” said Harvard psychologist Richard McNally. “But does it work? And if so, how do we know? The testimonials won’t do.”
The training at Ft. Hood takes place on the “resiliency campus,” about a mile from where the killings occurred.
That day, 66 soldiers -- many of them officers -- were taking part in a 10-day course that would certify them as master resilience trainers, allowing them to teach the skills and spread them throughout the Army.
Their class was canceled the next day but resumed Friday.
“We all know what happened Wednesday,” Master Sgt. William Loggins, a resilience official, told the class. “It’s very important now more than ever to take this back to your unit and start training.”
The students started with a breathing exercise, then launched into a lesson on “keep it in perspective,” which aims to prevent soldiers from imagining the worst in stressful situations. Later, some students told the class how they had put “hunt the good stuff” to use after the shooting.
One soldier explained that she was stuck on the base but felt fortunate that she could count on a friend to pick up her daughter. Another said she was grateful for all the phone calls she received from friends and family.
In an interview, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Brown, 35, said that after the sirens went off his thoughts began to spin out of control. His 12-year-old daughter was still at school on the base and there was no way to reach her. The cellphone network was jammed.
“I almost passed out,” he said. “My daughter and all those kids are outside at track practice.”
His daughter eventually sent a text message saying she was fine.
Looking back, Brown said he wished he had already mastered “keep it in perspective.”