By Sgt. Teddy Wade, U.S. Army
A sense of personal strength, appreciation for life and love of family have all been enhanced, says Frikken, 39, who directs artillery fire for 10th Mountain Division troops fighting here. "I will never be the same person I was before my combat experiences," he says.
What happens to soldiers like Frikken has led Army leaders to develop a resiliency program that urges GIs to look inward and discover how combat may have made them emotionally stronger.
Research appears to show that many people can emerge from traumatic experiences with greater self-confidence, a keener sense of compassion and appreciation for life, says Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. Cornum and other experts call this concept post-traumatic growth.
Although the military focuses attention on troops who develop mental health conditions in combat, Cornum says, the majority of war veterans do not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other problems.
"We never ask if anybody had some positive outcomes. We only ask about this laundry list of illnesses," says Cornum, referring to a battery of health questions soldiers face when they leave the combat zone.
She often alludes to her experiences as a prisoner during the Persian Gulf War. Cornum was an Army captain and flight surgeon in 1991 aboard a Black Hawk helicopter shot down over Iraq. Five of the seven soldiers died. Cornum suffered two broken arms and a gunshot wound to the shoulder, was captured with two others and held for eight days.
Her goal is to include a self-assessment on traumatic growth with a health questionnaire given to soldiers three to six months after they return from combat. She would also like to include in preparations before and after GIs are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan short video segments of servicemembers describing how their personal lives changed for the better after surviving combat.
The new tools could be put into effect within a year, Cornum says.
Richard Tedeschi, an expert in post-traumatic growth at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is collaborating on the project with the Army. Even though he calls the initiative "uncharted territory," Tedeschi says research indicates that soldiers have found value in their combat experiences. If informed about potential for post-traumatic growth beginning in basic training, he says, soldiers might not automatically assume "that the combat experience produces PTSD and you're kind of doomed."
During remarks at the American Enterprise Institute recently in Washington, Tedeschi said some servicemembers found the changes in their lives so profound after combat, they expressed gratitude for having gone through it — even if it cost them permanent physical damage.
"They'd felt they'd changed as people in ways they otherwise wouldn't have," Tedeschi says. "At the same time, as this trauma separates them from other people, it also allows them to maybe see themselves as more human than they ever were before, have a closer connection with what it means to be a human being ."
Frikken is married with three children, and goes out on missions from Forward Operating Base Airborne here. He says that nearly 33 cumulative months of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan "have made me realize to live every day as if it were my last. I take nothing for granted."
The experience forces survivors to "try to figure out 'Who am I now? ... What's my life supposed to be about?' " Tedeschi says. "We certainly would like to find ways of helping people move in this direction, because it's a way of mitigating the effects of this trauma."
Tedeschi acknowledges that his concepts are controversial.
Howard Tennen, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut, says that although post-traumatic growth may occur in some people, it is difficult to measure. He says available evidence does not yet support the idea that promoting a sense of growth will lead to positive outcomes.
Cornum says she finds the concept convincing.
"We never want something bad to happen," she says. "But if there's an opportunity to learn something from some adverse circumstance, we certainly want to take advantage of it."