By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 3, 2009 - Resilience is not issued when you join the service, but it can and must be built to prevent post-war mental health problems, a Navy official told attendees at the Warrior Resilience Conference here today. Navy Rear Adm. Karen Flaherty, director of the Navy's Nurse Corps and deputy chief of the Bureau of Medicine's wounded, ill and injured section, urged more than 400 people who gathered here to learn the best practices in the mental health care of soldiers and veterans.
The conference is subtitled "Full Operational Capability," and it has two connotations. The first is that warriors affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or other combat-related psychological ailments receive the care they need and deserve to return to full capability.
The other is a challenge for commanders, supervisors, clinicians and care givers to ensure the processes and policies are in place to give those affected the best care. "In the Navy, we want to make sure the seabag is full of things that make a difference as we move forward," Flaherty said.
Resilience is the human capacity to prepare for, recover from and adjust to life in the face of stress, adversity or trauma, she said, and can be gained, lost and taught.
Resilience is a result of biology, the environment and the choices people make, Flaherty said. "It is important for us to understand how individuals, families and units can build resilience and can be better prepared to adapt and even thrive in stressful environments," she said.
Mental health professionals need to understand what contributes to personal resilience, Flaherty said, listing critical attributes as critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills, a positive outlook, an ability to embrace change and a sense of humor.
"Trusting and supportive relationships also play a role in resilience," she said. "The ability to investigate solutions without getting worked up and the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses also contribute."
In the military, units also must be resilient, Flaherty said, and that happens with high morale, unit cohesion, pride in the unit's mission and pride in leaders. Units that face adversity can even strengthen their resilience, she said, as they become more agile and can adapt easier.
Individuals can increase resilience through common-sense strategies such as getting enough sleep, eating correctly and exercising, she said. It also helps for commanders to use after-action reports and critiques to encourage troops to talk about their experiences, she added.
Leaders must understand that they are as responsible for the good mental health of their servicemembers as they are of the physical health of their troops, Flaherty said.
"Tough, realistic training develops physical and mental strength and endurance," she said. "It enhances each servicemember's confidence in their abilities and their ability to cope with the familiar and unfamiliar."
Medical, ministry and other support groups are critical to building resilience. "It is about the team," she said.
But it is the line leaders – the unit commanders and noncommissioned officers – who have the largest responsibility, Flaherty said. "They balance the operational requirement to expose those servicemembers to risk against the imperative to preserve their health and readiness," she said.
Leaders have to be aware of the strains that servicemembers and their families are under. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the department has invested billions of dollars in trying to help families, Flaherty said.
"Our military families, when compared to families at large, are quite resilient, but also quite vulnerable," she said. "The frequency and length of deployments can create extraordinary pressure for many."
Developing resilience is not a science, and it will take years to determine what works best. "But we need to move now," she said. "We'll know more in five years, but we know more today than we did a year ago, so we act upon what we know and move forward.
"We can't wait for the perfect solution," she continued, "because the war will continue, the warriors will continue to be wounded, and we'll still have gaps in care."