Throw a Survey at It: Questioning Soldier Resilience in the US Army

The banquet hall at the Philadelphia hotel hosting the 2011 Second World Congress for Positive Psychology was packed as keynote speaker Martin Seligman approached the podium. As the unofficial spokesperson for the bourgeoning field known as “the science of human happiness,” the former head of the American Psychological Association does double duty as both a practitioner and promoter of a particular brand of behavioral health that challenges conventional psychology. Supplanting a longstanding emphasis on illness and pathology, positive psychologists define their practice against medicalized notions of suffering that they see as overly deterministic and focused on pathologies, rather than the adaptive, high-functioning behaviors that they believe enable “the good life,” even in the face of significant challenges.

Soldiers coming from Afghanistan attend a homecoming ceremony at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington. Photo by the author.

Soldiers coming from Afghanistan attend a homecoming ceremony at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington. Photo by the author.

Seligman’s speech served as a State-of-the-Union for those devoted to this version of mental health. He outlined a variety of prospective projects loosely connected to the Positive Psychology Center based at the University of Pennsylvania, including an initiative for a 9th-grade liberal-arts curriculum that would cull positive virtues out of Western literary and philosophical canons. Another project was a data-mining system that he described as a “Google Earth for well- being,” tracking how often users type posi- tive words into search engines.

The bulk of his public address, however, engaged with the troubling phenomenon of mental-health disorders and suicide, specifically the high rates of military suicides associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have stretched over the past 12 years. Seligman announced that his researchers had developed a tool capable of predicting soldier suicide with “pin-point precision.” Confidential questionnaire data pertaining to the mental and emotional habits of the roughly 1.1 million men and women serving in the US Army between 2010 and 2011 offered a key to a quandary that has puzzled generations of researchers in the psychological and social sciences. Typically, tracing the causes of suicide in large populations is, as he put it, as difficult as “finding a needle in a haystack.” However, Seligman claimed, a common instrument of measurement correlating personality attributes with eventual health outcomes reveals self-harming behaviors as patterned, predictable and thus potentially preventable.

Seligman’s use of the word “predict” to describe the temporal relationship between the data and the suicides suggested that the tool is future-oriented, yet the correlation he cited could only have been made after these two facts were established: there had been 84 suicides already confirmed in 2011, and each person had been an obligatory participant in a large-scale effort to assess and cultivate the resilience capacities of active duty military members. In other words, his assertion was less about forecasting behavior than it was about using information gathered in the past to understand why some soldiers engage in self-harm while others do not.

Contracting Resilience: The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program

Resilience is a versatile concept that has circulated among ecologists since the 1970s and has, in recent years, become a buzz-word of sorts in the realms of urban planning, development finance, education and behavioral health. Though these varying contexts engender different forms of expertise and practice, resilience has provided a common framework for theorizing about how to create the conditions for continuity and survival within circumstances of uncertainty. It is often defined by metaphors that signal a structural quality: resilience is the ability to bounce back, to bend without breaking, to endure stress, catastrophe, trauma or interruption and eventually regain a prior state of wellbeing. Within the context of military health, resilience occupies an ambiguous space somewhere between mental and emotional capacities that make for what resilience theorists call “mental toughness,” and an acknowledgement that military life itself produces unique conditions that threaten to undermine those very qualities. I first noticed the concept in 2010 while doing preliminary ethnographic research on public health efforts to address mental disorders in military communities. I had begun under the assumption that asking military planners about mental health would lead me to programs designed to address trauma. Combat operations had been taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade, and a significant amount of the media coverage was devoted to reports about high rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicide. While I did hear a lot about the military’s attempts to track and treat mental health disorders in individual sufferers, at the same time, I noticed a trend toward prevention, crystallized in the idea of building resilience.

Over the past two years, my research has traced a dynamic, uneven debate about what constitutes “resilience” in contemporary military contexts. My fieldwork has brought me into contact with many different people and institutions with stakes in the problem of how to understand the relationship between military service and mental health. This ethnographic research focuses on the convergence between mental health as a set of empirically measurable characteristics and a mode of self-understanding that situates and defines individual mental states. I have observed considerable variation in how behavioral health experts and soldiers take up resilience to account for the experiences and struggles unique to military life. Interviews have suggested that the definitions of mental health promoted in the Army’s resilience-building program are not received passively. Rather, they must compete with soldiers’ practical assessments of the potential consequences of conveying information about their mental and emotional states within a military bureaucracy that they often view with a mixture of caution and disdain. There is a sense that representing oneself the wrong way or in the wrong context can result in getting “sucked in,” as one soldier put it, to a process that may undermine the ability to define and direct one’s military experiences in his or her own terms.

The Army’s institutionalization of resilience results from a collaboration between the US military and researchers at Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center. In 2007, the Department of Defense offered the Philadelphia-based center a $140 million no-bid contract to develop a program that would draw on the principles of positive psychology to redefine what it means to be a healthy and high-functioning soldier in today’s military. Called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), the resulting program is based on three key principles: 1. A “full spectrum soldier,” who can function well in high-stress environments requires mental, emotional, and physical strength; 2. The individual and social traits of this resilience can be measured objectively; and 3. The attributes of resilience can be fostered through self-awareness and training.

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Comprehensive Soldier Fitness provides both a baseline measurement and tools for improving resilience. Its primary instrument is a mandatory self-report survey called the Global Assessment Tool, sometimes shortened to the GAT, or the Soldier Fitness Tracker. The GAT calculates a subject’s psychosocial fitness in four key domains associated with resilience: emotional, family, social and spiritual fitness (Peterson et al. 2011). Participants are then given a score for each domain. The scores serve as psychosocial data that researchers can correlate with future health outcomes as well as giving soldiers a vocabulary to conceptualize their own psychosocial health.

By teaching all military members about their individual capacities for resilience, CSF aims to shift the focus of military mental health from what positive psychologists see as an over-emphasis on trauma-related pathologies. Appropriating language from the diagnostic category Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, CSF challenges the association between trauma and mental illness through a concept called “Post-Traumatic Growth.” Introducing the potential for growth rather than disorder, the meaning of trauma itself is transformed, becoming less a descriptive category that demarcates a particular kind of undesirable event, such as a frightening accident or the death of a loved one. Instead, it becomes a way to conceptualize the encounter between such an event and the perceptual attributes of the person who experiences it.

According to my interviews with behavioral health experts and military planners who created and implemented the program, CSF should be seen as a broad-based effort to redefine the practices of self-care considered optimal within the context of their vocation. The shift toward resilience represents a new approach to military readiness, placing soldiers’ mental and emotional functioning at the center of their overall capacities, challenging the traditional hierarchical structure and strict training procedures thought to encourage a stoic, action-oriented disposition. In this traditional framing of military culture, emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt or uncertainty are seen as, at best, distractions from assigned duties, and at worst, signs of weakness.

CSF is framed by its designers as an intervention into a military ethos thought to normalize, if not glorify, mental and emotional repression. Yet CSF also provides a counter-narrative to the medicalization of war experience, which portrays stress and trauma as dangerously pathological and potentially debilitating features of military life. Alarming rates of suicide and clinical projections that between 20 to 30 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan may fit the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety disorders have prompted government health agencies to label mental health disorders one of the “signature injuries” of the war and made the emotional lives of soldiers a matter of medical concern and intervention (1).

While acknowledging the seriousness of this problem, the approach taken by CSF embraces the fact that military life is uniquely fraught with stressful, anxiety-producing, and sometimes traumatizing scenarios. A career Army officer and behavioral psychologist who helped design the program explained the logic to me in statistical terms. Echoing a maxim that one encounters frequently in positive psychology literature, he explained, “Even under conditions of extreme stress, individual human responses [to stress] are normally distributed.” By this he means that responses fit into three categories: a minority of people will “collapse” and exhibit symptoms of a mental disorder, a majority will be resilient and return to a normal level of functioning after a brief period of disruption, and a second minority will be even stronger, exhibiting post-traumatic growth.

Members of the 10th Mountain Infantry Division board a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Danny Sogn.

Members of the 10th Mountain Infantry Division board a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Danny Sogn.

“We Measure What We Value and Value What We Measure”

In an issue of American Psychologist devoted entirely to CSF, three of the program’s designers described assessment as the “linchpin” that unites the scientific method with the goal of instilling resilience in troops (Peterson et al. 2011). In 2009, the Army mandated that every active duty soldier within its ranks must complete the GAT, which I described briefly above.

Approximately 2,000 people complete the 105-question GAT survey daily, including military personnel and members of military families who are offered a special version of the survey (Johnson 2013). Questions for the GAT were selected from a pool of psychological surveys with established reliability and validity evidence, and further narrowed down by a group of civilian and Army experts who considered which measures would be most appropriate to the military population and to the program’s acknowledged objective of creating a kind of “PT (Physical Training) test for mental health” (Kappler 2010).

Individual soldiers take the GAT online, using a password-protected interface. Once the survey is completed, each soldier is given a percentage score weighted against Army-wide norms. This is accompanied by an invitation to receive follow-up training in any of the four resilience areas in which they were evaluated. Optional additional training includes interactive online modules corresponding to the four resilience areas. Each module presents participants with interactive scenarios that help to illustrate the key concepts of resilience and suggests how participants can strengthen weaker areas of behavior determined by the GAT.

Higher-ranking officers and non-commissioned officers with demonstrated leadership potential are selected by their commanders to attend 10-day Master Resilience Training workshops conducted by specially trained behavioral health practitioners (Reivich, Seligman and McBride 2011). Upon completion of the program, participants become Master Resilience Trainers themselves, qualified to teach others the techniques they have learned in unit-specific RTAs, or Resilience Training Assistance, courses available to enlisted personnel ranked sergeant and above. This method of trickle-down learning is known as “training the trainers.” Teaching resilience-building skills to those who, by virtue of their rank, are already in leadership positions is intended to diffuse the principles of CSF throughout the rest of the rank and file military population.

Questioning the Questionnaire

When I started asking Army members about their experiences with taking the GAT, I learned that the program’s goal of obtaining an objective measurement of resilience capacities was often complicated by the embedded assumptions that participants brought to the psychological surveys and the contrast between practical and survey-ready versions of “resilience.” Most of the soldiers I spoke with who had been on active duty in recent years were aware of the Army’s effort to integrate resiliency into the training and debriefing protocols that bookend deployment. However, many were confused about what the specific program was and whether or not they had participated in it during their own training. More often than not, I would have to prompt informants by recounting the survey questions; sometimes even this did not elicit a confident recollection.

It was suggested to me that the uncertainty was not because of any individual tendencies toward forgetfulness or indifference, but a consequence of the multitude of required protocols that confront military personnel in their day-to-day duties. “In the Army,” as one active duty infantry sergeant explained it, “there’s a form and a memo for everything. They [military planners] see a problem and throw a survey at it. Sometimes they blend together and you gotta do it on autopilot.”

Military members are constantly being asked to report vital attributes of their personal and professional lives, from the psychological and skills-based test taken prior to enlistment to the Pre- and Post-Deployment Health Assessment and Re-Assessment (PDHRA) that accompanies deployment cycles. Seeing the GAT as yet another survey in the battery of questionnaires, evaluations and briefings that they must complete, many soldiers told me that they scarcely registered the purpose of the GAT, much less understood the significance of their individual scores. One infantry sergeant explained that “hurrying to fill out a mandatory form so you can get in another line to complete the next … task does not lead to careful form filling.”

Several interviewees relayed stories about when they took the tests. One told me about being called in for a briefing about the pro- gram. Realizing that the auditorium hosting the briefing was filled beyond capacity, officials dismissed the assembled units to take the GAT without any explanation of the CSF program and its scaling system. Another told me that all of the soldiers in his unit were made to take the GAT on a single, outdated computer. Pressure to get all of the soldiers through the process quickly so that the unit could “go green” and proceed to the next step in the pre-deployment cycle meant that each individual had to rush through the test, completing it in the company of others who were waiting.

Perhaps the most interesting pattern that emerged in my interviews concerned how people made sense of the GAT questionnaire in relation to broader sets of concerns about military mental health. Although the designers of the GAT explicitly designed the survey to be confidential, a “snapshot” of an individual’s resilience capacities rather than a screening tool, my conversations revealed that participants often held mistaken and contradictory beliefs about how military officials would use the personal information they revealed in the test.

For some, the GAT was perceived as purposeless, a smoke-and-mirrors approach to mental health that masked the military’s inattention to soldiers’ everyday wellbeing. One infantry specialist told me that “[you could] promise to commit a mass murder in your GAT survey and it would go completely ignored.” Laughing drily, he continued, “I have provided some pretty dismal answers on mine and there has never been any response.”

For this soldier, the survey was seen as dismally unresponsive and reflective of a lack of genuine concern for self-reported assessments of soldiers’ mental states. By providing false and even inflammatory answers on the questionnaire, the specialist thought that perhaps this provocative “acting out” would reveal the limits of the system’s attentiveness to even the most obvious signs of distress or danger. Although the GAT is not meant to convey personal information that could prompt mental health interventions based on alarming answers, my informant’s belief that the GAT is a link in the chain of a neglectful surveillance system is revealing.

Although the statement about “mass murder” was clearly couched in sarcasm, it was not a joke made without context. Connections between military service and violent crime have been an object of speculative attention in the popular media throughout the conflicts (2), a point familiar to the military community. Amid a concern that the military might harbor an unknown number of “ticking time bombs” who could eventually snap, lack of systematic attention to everyday mental states can reinforce public fears about the threat of soldier violence (Gal- lagher 2013; Horton 2013).

While many of the soldiers I spoke to agreed that such surveys neglected mental-health concerns, others saw the GAT as not only impersonal but also highly consequential. These soldiers believed, incorrectly, that the survey would convey psychosocial in- formation to authority figures or medical officers, and I came to see that this perception also had a significant impact on how they answered the questions. “You have to be careful about not making yourself seem really crazy or out of touch,” a warrant officer in a combat aviation brigade told me. “The worry is that being too candid can get you into trouble.”

This point was echoed by a staff sergeant no longer in the army who told me that any smart soldier will learn how to give the right answer rather than the honest one when faced with a self-report survey. Under the impression that problematic answers will provoke a follow-up visit from “mental health,” the colloquial term that signals any kind of medical intervention that does not correspond to an immediate bodily ailment, many soldiers with whom I spoke filtered their responses through previously held theories about which self-professed attitudes, thoughts and feelings would be least likely to raise red flags.

The lack of candor that soldiers display certainly suggests a gap between the CSF program’s aims and its application in the context of military life. However, this gap does not necessarily reflect a blanket rejection of mental health concerns as a legitimate way of framing the durable effects of military service. Nor does it suggest that soldiers exclude resiliency from their aspirations for themselves, their loved ones and their communities. Ironically, many of my informants described their calculated negotiation of mental-health surveys and military health systems as employing a form of in-situ resilience that offered them a sense of autonomy unavailable through formal structures. This reveals a contradiction at the heart of the military’s attempts to quantify and cultivate its members’ resilience capacities.

Self-report surveys such as the GAT are framed as objective instruments that both reflect patterns of thought, feeling and behavior and provide parameters for enhancing them within the framework of resilience. Within military contexts, however, the systematic application of the program occurs within a group of individuals who possess an acute awareness of their status as particular kinds of psychological subjects. They are far from being “blank slates” that can be seamlessly absorbed into a new training schema. The military members and veterans I interviewed displayed an array of embedded assumptions about what forms of cognitive and emotional expression should be considered adaptive within the particular institutional landscapes they navigate on a daily basis. Crucially, the behaviors that were judged by active-duty soldiers to be most conducive to resilience often included negotiating around military health initiatives like CSF, rather than participating in them in a transparent way.

Perhaps the story of a former infantry officer deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan illustrates this point best. During his final deployment, he experienced acute feelings of anxiety, fear and hopelessness and knew that “something was different this time and [he] was in trouble.” Rather than reporting these feelings in a survey or to any of the mental health professionals available on post when he arrived back in the United States, he tried to “lessen” these feelings in professional contexts. Once he was out of the army a few months later, he sought a mental-health professional and was diagnosed and treated for PTSD. When I asked him why he had waited so long to get help when he knew he needed it, he thought a moment, and said, “I just didn’t want the system to decide for me.”

Notes

1. Variability in PTSD rates results from differences in the ways in which data is collected and analyzed. A meta-analytical review of the prevalence literature conducted by RAND (2008) puts the rate at 20 percent. However, a newer report released by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs shows that 239,174 out of a total of 834,467 patients accessing care through the VA had received a diagnosis of PTSD.

2. Violent crimes committed by military members gained media visibility in 2002 when Vanity Fair magazine published an article about the murder of three women committed by recently returned Afghanistan veterans stationed at Fort Bragg (Orth 2002). In the years since, other highly publicized cases have fueled public speculation about the relationship between combat experience, mental health, and increased risk for violent outbursts (McGreal 2009; Hertzberg 2013; Schmidle 2013). This has in turn been challenged by veterans’ advocates who take issue with the “dangerous veteran” narrative that the belief perpetuates inaccurate and pernicious stereotypes (Hoit 2013).

References Cited

Gallagher, Matt. 2013. “The Battle with PTSD after the Fighting Stops.” The Daily Beast. October 9. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/ 10/09/the-battle-with-ptsd-after-the-fighting -stops.html. Retrieved October 10, 2013.

Hertzberg, Hendrik. 2013. “Crime and Punishment, Military Style.” The New Yorker. August 28.

Hoit, Kate. 2013. “The ‘Dangerous’ Veteran: An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold.” VAntagepoint: Department of Veterans Affairs. March 6. http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/6026/the -%E2%80%9Cdangerous%E2%80%9D-veteran -an-inaccurate-media-narrative-takes-hold/. Retrieved October 10, 2013.

Horton, Alex. 2013. “When Will the Media Stop Fueling the Angry Vet Narrative?” Defense One. September 25.

Johnson, Daniel. 2013. “Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness: Army Fit.” Virtual Presentation for Warrior Resilience Conference V. August 14.

Kappler, Susanne. “Online Tool Assesses Four Dimensions of Strength.” 2010. http://www.army .mil/article/33621/. January 28. Retrieved November 3, 2013.

McGreal, Chris. 2009. “Horror and Stresses of Iraq Duty Led US Sergeant to Kill Comrades.” The Guardian. May 15.

Orth, Maureen. 2002. “Fort Bragg’s Deadly Summer.” Vanity Fair. December.

Peterson, Christopher, Nansook Park and Carl Castro. 2011.“Assessment for the U.S. Army Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program: Global Assessment Tool.” American Psychologist 66, no. 1:10–18.

Reivich, Karen, Martin E. P. Seligman and Sharon McBride. 2011. “Master Resilience Training in the U.S. Army.” American Psychologist 66, no. 1:25–34.

Schmidle, Chris. 2013. “In the Crosshairs.” The New Yorker. June 3.

Tanelian, Terri, and Lisa H. Jaycox, eds. 2008. “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery.” Santa Monica, CA: Center for Military Health Research, RAND.

Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veteran’s Affairs. 2012. “Report on the VA Facility Specific Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND).”

Emily Sogn is a researcher, writer and teacher interested in war and its social and material consequences. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the New School for Social Research in New York, completing a dissertation project that explores US Army programs designed to quantify and cultivate resilience in soldiers. She teaches classes on war media and the anthropology of militarism at Eugene Lang College and at Taconic Correctional Facility as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. You can find her other publications and news about her current work on her website: emily-sogn.squarespace.com.

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