Army families: Thriving in the midst of challenges 

12/1/2009 

"We know that the strength of our Army comes from the strength of our families," Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones said on Oct. 6, at the second of the Association of the United States Army’s three military family forums.

As the Army Family Covenant kicks off its third year of existence, Jones said the Army is striving to help its soldiers and families develop resilience-positive adaptation to repeated adversity or trauma.

Also at this professional development forum held during the Association’s Annual Meeting, Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army’s suicide prevention task force, reported on what she called an unfortunate trend – the steady increase in the rate of Army suicides.

In 2008, 140 active duty soldiers committed suicide out of a total active duty population of 700,000.

Before 2005, the rate of suicides in the Army was lower than the suicide rate in the general population; however, today, the Army suicide rate exceeds the civilian rate.

The Army has identified a long list of factors that increase the risk of suicide, including: infidelity, alcohol abuse, high-risk driving, multiple drug offenses, use of opiates, sleep deprivation, erratic behavior, compressed dwell times between deployments and undiagnosed PTSD.

 Covenant signing
Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh, Chief
of Staff of the Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr.,
and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston reaffirmed the Army’s commitment to soldiers and their families by signing a family covenant at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting.

The Army is examining its counseling, drug testing and medical treatment programs to see if they are effective at mitigating those risks and addressing the needs of today’s soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum directs the Army’s new effort to ensure that its soldiers are strong mentally, as well as physically. This effort is called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.

"It is essential to intervene in a crisis," Cornum said about the Army’s suicide prevention programs, "but it’s better to prevent catastrophic thinking that results in a crisis."

Most soldiers get through their deployments, she said, but they could overcome mental health difficulties more easily if they had been trained beforehand.

Cornum said training is most needed by the Army’s recent influx of very young soldiers who face the complex array of stressors inherent to warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These young soldiers, who enter the Army with varying degrees of mental preparedness, are often asked to accomplish offensive, defensive, stability and civilian support tasks within a very short period of time.

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness will be provided for the entire force, beginning this month and will be available in early 2010 for families and civilian employees of the military.

The comprehensive effort has four components: an online self-assessment tool, online self-development tools guided by the assessment, resilience training and master resilience training.

The Army is making a long-term commitment to improve soldiers’ mental health with its new program, Cornum said.

Resilience training will help soldiers develop better coping skills – steering them to find ways out of catastrophic, but temporary, crises. The ultimate desired outcome of the training is that most soldiers will find stability, or even growth, after confronting adversity or trauma.

The next three presenters focused on the benefits available from the Veterans Administration (VA), which are explained in greater detail on its Web site: www.va.gov

Mike Carr, management and program analyst from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), explained its five programs: compensation and pension, education, loan guaranty, insurance, vocational rehabilitation and employment. Some of these benefits and services are available for active duty soldiers after they have served for 90 days or 180 days prior to separation and pre-discharge, not only veterans.

Jennifer Perez, acting chief consultant of the Office of Patient Care Services, outlined the nationwide VA network of hospitals, veteran centers and outpatient clinics, as well as the special programs for OEF and OIF vets, caregivers and families and the liaison program aimed at coordinating healthcare between the military and the VA.

Alfonso R. Batres, chief officer of the readjustment counseling service, described the confidential counseling services available for veterans and their families at vet centers and provided contact info: www.vetcenter.va.gov, or (866) 644-5371.

Preventing caregiver burnout was the subject discussed by Wayne Boswell and Shawn Moon of Franklin Covey. Providing Outreach While Enhancing Readiness (POWER) is a new program for chaplains, teachers, medical providers and others who support soldiers and experience compassion fatigue.

The presentation by Secretary of the Army John McHugh of the Quality of Life Awards concluded the forum.