Research appears to show that many people can emerge from traumatic experiences with greater self-confidence, a keener sense of compassion and appreciation for life, says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Cornum and other experts call this concept post-traumatic growth.
Although the military focuses attention on troops who develop mental health conditions in combat, Cornum says, the majority of war veterans do not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other problems.
“We never ask if anybody had some positive outcomes. We only ask about this laundry list of illnesses,” says Cornum, referring to a battery of health questions soldiers face when they leave the combat zone.
Her goal is to include a self-assessment on traumatic growth with a health questionnaire given to soldiers three to six months after they return from combat. She would also like to include in preparations before and after GIs are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan short video segments of servicemembers describing how their personal lives changed for the better after surviving combat.
The new tools could be put into effect within a year, Cornum says.
Richard Tedeschi, an expert in post-traumatic growth at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is collaborating on the project with the Army. Even though he calls the initiative “uncharted territory,” Tedeschi says research indicates that soldiers have found value in their combat experiences. If informed about potential for post-traumatic growth beginning in basic training, he says, soldiers might not automatically assume “that the combat experience produces PTSD and you’re kind of doomed.”
During remarks at the American Enterprise Institute recently in Washington, Tedeschi said some servicemembers found the changes in their lives so profound after combat, they expressed gratitude for having gone through it — even if it cost them permanent physical damage.
“They’d felt they’d changed as people in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have,” Tedeschi says. “At the same as this trauma separates them from other people, it also allows them to maybe see themselves as more human than they ever were before, have a closer connection with what it means to be a human being.”
The article quotes Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Frikken, a father of three children who has served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as saying his deployments “have made me realize to live every day as if it were my last. I take nothing for granted.”
Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a former Commander of Landstuhl hospital, says she finds the concept convincing. She knows what she's talking about. Shot down over Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War, she suffered the loss of 5 fellow soldiers, two broken arms, a gunshot wound to the shoulder, and eight days in enemy captivity.
“We never want something bad to happen,” she says. “But if there’s an opportunity to learn something from some adverse circumstance, we certainly want to take advantage of it.”