Home » Military Personnel » Opinion: Recruiting for Mental Resilience Needs to be a Priority

Opinion: Recruiting for Mental Resilience Needs to be a Priority

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reviews sailors Recruit Training Command (RTC) on Sept. 13, 2013. US Navy Photo

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reviews sailors Recruit Training Command (RTC) on Sept. 13, 2013. US Navy Photo

As I sat in my windowless office at the Washington Navy Yard on “lockdown” all day on Sept. 16 — unable to see or hear any of the mayhem that was occurring outside and also unable to assist, I felt helpless.

Once again, I wondered what kind of person would commit such an atrocity. I was saddened to learn that the mass shooter was a veteran.

Today’s all-volunteer force is arguably one of the most highly trained and highly educated in our nation’s history. To maintain that edge, it must have a strong recruiting pipeline, one that seeks out physically fit, smart young men and women who are interested in serving their country and gaining valuable skills for subsequent careers outside the military.

Why, then, don’t they recruit for mental health and resiliency?

Some headlines about increased rates of military post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicides would lead you to believe that repeated deployments and exposure to combat trauma are the primary cause of a sharp rise in both. Last month’s mass murder at the Navy Yard would seem to lend credence to that theory.

But a study just released by the Journal of the American Medical Association turns that assumption on its head. The authors analyzed more than 150,000 military service members (members of the Millennium Cohort Study, the largest longitudinal U.S. military study that was launched in 2001). More than half of the reported suicide victims had never witnessed combat or even deployed. On the contrary, the single biggest risk factor associated with the suicide deaths among this group was a mental disorder. Another major risk factor was alcohol abuse.

In other words, many of these service members probably entered the military with these risk factors, or pre-existing conditions. Military service may have exacerbated their illnesses, but it’s clear from this study — and from the profile of the Navy Yard shooter — that deployment and exposure to combat trauma did not.

Which brings us back to the question: Why aren’t we recruiting for mental resilience?

Recruiting the right mental state made a significant difference in the survival and health of one group of combat veterans who were unexpectedly tested like no other group. Our prisoners of war incarcerated in North Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 were and still are the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history. But they remain one of the healthiest and most successful group of combat veterans in our nation’s history.

Their average lifetime PTSD rate is somewhere around 4 percent. After their trauma, the roster of leadership positions attained by this group includes 24 reaching flag or general officer rank and seven elected to the U.S. Congress. Others served as a U.S. ambassador, a federal trade commissioner, a U.S. presidential candidate, a U.S. vice presidential candidate, doctors, lawyers, business executives, authors and ministers.

Admittedly, these aviators brought some advantages to the trauma of being POWs. Not only were they older than the average Vietnam soldier (the POWs’ average age was 34) — bringing more maturity to their experience, they were also highly educated and trained for their mission.

But researchers at the Mitchell Center for POW Studies in Pensacola, Fla., have determined that they were also optimistic — a carefully defined, testable psychological trait that the Mitchell Center researchers believe can also be taught. The pervasiveness of tested optimism among the POWs lends credence to both the idea of testing for optimism and teaching it to military personnel who face traumatic challenges.

Today’s military tests for physical fitness, education and aptitude among their potential recruits. But do they test for the characteristics that could inoculate service members from the long-term impact of trauma? Do they consistently train for it?

The lessons learned by the Vietnam POWs make a strong case for new thinking: proactively recruiting and training for the attributes that reduce the potential for long-term PTSD. That may mean rejecting potential recruits with potential risk factors. That’s a difficult but necessary decision if we want to reduce headlines like the one from the Washington Navy Yard.

  • Todd Zeigler

    because recruiters are under quotas. the only thing that matters is a body for a number. try and weed out to the right candidate and the career recruiting force will be all over you for not making goal

  • Kevinc80

    There is no basis for for the author’s perceived connection between the Washington Navy Yard shooting and with the current recruiting process. James Earl Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald, and University of Texas shooter Charles Whitman are all well-known killers, and all veterans/ Are we to believe their actions of 50 years ago are the result of today’s recruiting polices? The Navy Yard shooter was a nut case to be sure, but there is no connection between his craziness and the 4 unspectacular years he spent in the Navy.

  • Larry McClelland

    What you seem to be advocating is weeding out those not tough enough to make the grade, as in Parris Island or MCRD San Diego. I believe Congress has relentlessly tried to weaken Basic Training and OCS. Perhaps tougher basic training would be a cost effective means of identifying those who lack . Hasn’t the Air Force stated that it’s Drone Pilots are under tremendous stress and suffering from PTSD even though they are not Deployed, in Combat, or Under Paid (and so suffering from financial pressure).
    As for arguably the best trained and educated being the current standing military, are you speaking of officers or enlisted? The enlisted ranks are drawn disproportionally from the nations weakest educational systems, (rural South and West ), and not from the upper half or their classes. I sincerely doubt the Pentagon would care to release the SAT scores of those recruits who have taken the SAT’s. Regarding Vietnam POW’s they were almost exclusively officer pilots weren’t they. Societies have tended to go much easier on former POW’s who were Naval or Air Combatants following the theory that their capture was unavoidable as they were shot down or sunk, Admiral Doenitz comes to mind. Could you name some successful POW’s who were ground soldiers during Vietnam? I don’t believe the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong made much effort to imprison long term those who surrendered, wounded or not. No former enlisted Airman come to mind as notable successes after Hanoi. I hold Alverez and many others much higher than McCain.

    • Kevinc80

      Larry, I agree with most of what you say, but I’m not aware of Congress taking any direct action regarding military basic training. Military training is a DoD / Executive Branch issue, not a Legislative Branch issue. Can you provide a link to more info about Congress trying to weaken basic training?

      • Larry McClelland

        Military Training is very much a Legislative Branch issue and it is controlled by the Senate Sub Committee on Military Personnel. January of this year Rep. Speier D-CA introduced H.R. 403 The Protect our Military Trainees Act, which is now law, and should have been years ago. In 1997 Roscoe Bartlett R-MD introduced H.R. 1559, the Military Recruit Training Restoration Act in an attempt to reverse the liberalization and weakening of recruit training, it failed having mostly Republican support. There have been a number of other legislative attempts to control boot camp and they don’t necessarily have to pass to get the message across. There are among the flag officers a number of egotists who aspire to high elected office and are very willing to betray the military to achieve their goals, Adm. Sestak and Gen. Wesley Clark come to mind. Every 0-6 looking at higher rank and every Flag officer looking to add stars is already cultivating members of Congress in hopes of promotion. If the same politicians who decide your promotion status inform you to add “diaper changing” to Basic Training as a part of greater “awareness” on the part of Enlisted military you will do it.

        On the other hand withholding appropriations is much less effective since it means loss of income and employment in the Politicians home base, so it’s a threat not taken so seriously. Former Marine General Cheney has spoken on this subject several times and his opinions are available at several places on the Web.