The Obstacle is the Way, Pt. 3
“I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”
This line from the Soldier’s Creed of the US Army is a powerful statement of purpose. In comparison to most professions this statement acknowledges the inevitability of extreme difficulty one will face in this role. Bankers, Starbucks baristas, nor factory workers enter into an employment situation with the understanding of the incredible risk to their life as does a soldier. While trauma is not a guarantee, it’s more than a strong possibility in this line of work. Enlisting in the military involves metaphorically signing up for the possibility of a traumatic experience. This stands in contrast to the civilian world. While car crashes, divorce, and life altering illness are common traumatic events, no one wakes up each day expecting these things to happen. Bank tellers don’t apply for a job in the hopes of fighting off a bank robber. Soldiers, on the other hand, carry a gun for the almost inevitable moment of a life or death altercation. In those moments, trauma is often a by-product.
Since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks, waves of troops have returned to the United States with various levels of posttraumatic stress. Recognizing trauma is all but inevitable for a soldier in combat, the US Army has recently explored the possibility of preemptively preparing a soldier for future posttraumatic growth (read more about PTG in my previous post). Military leaders have come to recognize a need to be proactive in developing programs designed to foster PTG before troops actually experience the trauma. Interestingly, one key component the military has sought to cultivate is spiritual growth.
A special issue of the American Psychologist in 2011 discussed the development of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program (CSF), a program designed to increase the psychological strength and positive performance of the entire US Army. A conceptual model developed by Colonel Patrick J. Sweeney, Ph.D., LTC Sean T Hannah, Ph.D., and Don M. Snider, Ph.D., identified several psychological structures and processes that facilitate human spiritual development. One component is the individual’s spiritual core, defined by the military as an “individual’s most central values and beliefs concerning purpose and meaning in life, trust about the world, and vision for realizing one’s full potential and purpose.” Research corroborates the importance of spiritual growth as a component to psychological health and well-being in addition to its role reinforcing a greater life purpose and encouraging a stronger commitment to goals.
One aspect of the CSF program is a proactive approach to developing resiliency prior to trauma. This design allows for the development of psychological strength in a preventative manner, thus reducing maladaptive responses.
While the actual program has not been released to the public, psychologists Tedeschi and McNally surmise five parts as being central to the program. This five-part process is intended to contribute to soldiers’ well-being, which consists of four dimensions that contribute to mission preparedness: physical, material, mental, and spiritual.
Part one is understanding trauma response as a precursor to posttraumatic growth. It establishes that a trauma response forms the foundation for the growth that will come later. Understanding that trauma results in shattered beliefs about self, others, and the future, which are normal reactions and do not indicate a defect in one’s character or identity, is the goal of part one.
Part two is emotional regulation enhancement, which includes methods of reducing anxiety and intrusive thoughts to allow for later healing and growth. Training at this stage includes tools to manage nervous system responses and intrusive thinking.
Part three is constructive self-disclosure, which develops and encourages various ways of telling the story of the trauma, especially the aftermath. Participants are trained to use metaphors to tell the story while leveraging their social network for support.
Part four begins the process of creating a trauma narrative. In this step, participants reconfigure shattered belief systems and revise life narratives. The trauma story is organized into a coherent narrative, with the trauma serving as a turning point that allows for a new paradox. Trauma stories of others are also used to illustrate the possibility of positive change.
Part five develops life principles that are resilient to challenge. Resilience is enhanced by finding ways to be altruistic, accepting growth without guilt, accepting a changed identity as a trauma survivor, and considering Greek and Roman ideas of heroism that describe an ordinary person who experiences an extraordinary event and returns to express an important life truth.
This five part process reflects one approach to preparing the mind for growth. Most importantly though is that the
process takes place prior to the traumatic experience. This is a significant shift from the traditional models of therapy for those who have experienced trauma. I’ve never heard of someone going to counseling to prepare themselves for the possibility of getting into a car accident someday. It’s a mindset shift from reactionary to being proactive.
This research got me thinking: is trauma necessary for growth? No healthy individual wants to experience a traumatic event. But is it possible to do something difficult, yet not traumatic, and experience some form of growth in the process? From the perspective of spiritual growth, can doing hard things draw us closer to God?
The Christian church has engaged this question in the form of ascetic and monastic practices for thousands of years. My next post will explore the history of spiritual disciplines, asceticism, and how a saint filling her mouth with the diarrhea of a sick man has anything to do with spiritual growth.
 “Soldier’s Creed,” accessed May 5, 2017, https://www.army.mil/values/soldiers.html.
 Rhonda Cornum, Michael D. Matthews, and Martin EP Seligman, “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building Resilience in a Challenging Institutional Context,” American Psychologist 66.1 (2011): 4.
 Kenneth I. Pargament and Patrick J. Sweeney, “Building Spiritual Fitness in the Army: An Innovative Approach to a Vital Aspect of Human Development,” American Psychologist 66.1 (2011): 58.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 60.
 Cornum, Matthews, and Seligman, 6.
 Ibid., 4.
 Tedeschi and McNally, 21.
 Ibid., 21-22.