The Army is to be commended for moving to better train its 1.1 million soldiers to deal with the emotional toll of combat. With suicides rising, and with one in five veterans returning from Afghanistan or Iraq showing signs of posttraumatic stress, the Army clearly needs to reverse a culture where soldiers keep their troubles bottled up. But changing attitudes in the ranks won't be easy. It will require strong, sustained support from Army leadership.
The training is designed to make soldiers more resilient in stressful situations. Troops will learn how to better analyze problems and balance the demands of soldiering and personal life. Commanders say the training — the first of its kind — is meant to improve readiness in the field and ease the transition for soldiers from battlefield experiences. The program, to begin in October, eventually will be required for all active duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel.
Soldiers and their families need to see the Army is seriously concerned about their welfare. At least 140 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, a steady increase over 2007 and 2006 and the most in a single year since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The stress of long and repeated deployments has been cited as the cause of a range of violent acts committed by veterans of the war zones, from shootings to domestic assaults. To its credit, the Defense Department has tried to play catch-up under the current secretary, Robert Gates. It undertook a long-range study to examine the stress of long deployments and combat, sought to remove the stigma for soldiers who seek mental health services and expanded programs to help veterans make the transition to civilian life.
The Army leadership has the right idea, but the job of teaching emotional toughness will fall to sergeants — the very people in the Army hierarchy whose job it is to break down the individual to build cohesive units. This is a far different role for a group whose traditional task has been to build a gung-ho mentality among troops. They need to take the job seriously and have support from above to make the training meaningful.