ARLINGTON, Va. - National Guard senior leaders are pushing for all Guard members — from leadership, down — to take mental health just as seriously as they do maintaining physical fitness and mission readiness.
Building greater resilience is key, say senior leaders.
“Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands,” said David Schonberg, chief of the Air National Guard’s Suicide Prevention Branch. “Resiliency looks up. It looks up to a new possibility; it looks up to see a new horizon.”
Schonberg added that resilience gives individuals the ability to become strong without becoming hardened.
“It’s not an obvious analogy, but I liken resilience to a callus,” he continued. “I grew up on a farm and calluses were just a sign of the hard work we did. What’s interesting is that the calluses actually enabled us to work harder while also protecting our hands. To me, resilience is like that – you can withstand more than you thought.”
However, resilience is more than simply being able to withstand more and “bounce back”, it is also about understanding your emotional responses, said James Moore, program director for the Army National Guard’s Ready and Resilient campaign.
“How do you address those emotions?” Moore asked. “Resilience builds your ability to do that and enables you to come through with a healthier mindset overall because you are able to face your challenges head on and find real solutions.”
As a result, there’s been a change in approach with resiliency.
“I think many times in the past we tried to survive a situation, to just ‘get through it,’” Moore said, “but that’s not how you create a strong individual. That’s creating individuals who are easily overwhelmed and overburdened with problems that they see no way out of later down the road.”
Moore and Schonberg agreed that building stronger, more resilient individuals helps to create a stronger and more ready force.
“By prioritizing the resilience of our members, it not only ensures their holistic health and well-being, but it directly translates into increased mission success,” Schonberg said.
Moore added that a team is only as strong as its weakest link.
“If you’re going out on a mission and you have someone who is worried over what their significant other back home is doing, or losing their house, that person is not 100 percent mission-ready mentally,” he explained. “As an individual who has a more resilient outlook and healthy perspective, you’re going to be more effective at doing your job as a member of your team.”
Because the Guard is a community-based organization, the benefits of a more resilient Soldier or Airman often extend beyond the squad or unit they are under.
“As Citizen-Soldiers we spend 28 days a month with our civilian employers and our families who benefit from a more resilient Guard member too,” said Army Capt. Brian Pennington, a coordinator with the Army Guard’s Ready and Resilient campaign.
Pennington said the way ahead is continued improvement in the resiliency of Soldiers, Airmen and the National Guard as a whole.
“We have got to give our men and women the skills to mentally handle any situation,” he said. “Just like giving them the right weapon for the right firefight, they need the right skills to succeed in their units, their families and civilian employers.”
The Master Resilience Training Program has been a key component of the Army and Air Force — also subsequently the National Guard’s — holistic approach to overall fitness.
“Leaders realized there was a need for the program when a lot of issues involving alcohol and substance abuse, financial issues, suicides and other behavioral health concerns began occurring more and more among returning Soldiers,” Moore said, adding it was introduced in the Guard in 2009.
“Army leaders, with help from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, looked for ways to develop resilience in an individual,” he said. “For years it was thought that resilience was hardwired, and you were either born or not born with it,” he said.
Guard members who attend the two-week course learn about resilience fundamentals and the discipline necessary to educate and instill that in others.
“These skills also develop their ability to understand the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of themselves and others,” he said. “They identify their top character strengths and the top character strengths of others, learn to use that knowledge to overcome challenges and build effective relationships through communication strategies.”
Once they complete the course, the master resilience trainers return to their units.
At the unit level, MRTs support and teach Soldiers and Airmen the 12 resilience skills and two performance enhancement skills designed to make Soldiers and Airmen stronger by building their mental toughness and enhancing their performance, Moore said.
Emphasizing resilience from senior leaders on down is expected to continue, said Schonberg.
“As the National Guard embraces the cultural shift that is reflected in Comprehensive Airman, Soldier, and Family Fitness programs, new ways to better support our community will surface,” he observed. “We owe it to ourselves to look for these opportunities and move quickly to effect change where we can.”