Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program Builds Resiliency

Preventive program arms soldiers and families with positive psychology tools.

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is a formidable champion of resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. In February of 1991, when she was a flight surgeon during Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf War, Brig. Gen. Cornum survived a harrowing week which included a fiery helicopter crash, bullet wounds, two broken arms, enemy capture and an abusive assault. She was one of three who survived the ordeal: five others did not. She recounts, “I just approached that particular little stressful week as any other event. Events happen: you make every effort for events like that not to happen, but when they do, you just deal with it.”

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As her military career progressed, Brig. Gen. Cornum, says, “I realized when I was responsible for the health of large groups of soldiers that not everyone approaches adversity with resilience and optimism and that we should do something to help people realize that how they respond to adversity is really modifiable by them.” Brig. Gen. Cornum, M.D., is a urologic surgeon and holds a Ph.D in nutrition and biochemistry from Cornell University.

In October 2009, she launched Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, a $145 Million U.S. Army program that trains thousands of soldiers, family members and Department of Defense civilians. The goal of the program is preventive: to arm soldiers with psychological fitness tools in advance so they are better able to face high levels of sustained stress.

The program was designed in consultation with positive psychology experts at the University of Pennsylvania, notably Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman and Dr. Karen Reivich. “The Penn Resiliency Project was demonstrated to be successful in improving performance and preventing negative outcomes in 17 different studies in replications over 20-25 years, so it’s pretty clear it works,” says Brig. Gen. Cornum.

Two of the four pillars of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program are the Global Assessment Tool and Master Resilience Trainers. The other two pillars are online Comprehensive Resilience Modules in each area of health based on individual needs, and an Institutional program that seeks to reduce barriers for those seeking help.

1)      Global Assessment Tool – the GAT is a mandatory, confidential online test that measures four key dimensions of emotional strength: emotional; social; family; and spiritual. Consisting of 105 questions, the annual test takes about 15 minutes to complete and was developed from measures previously validated in peer-reviewed scientific journals. So far, the test has been taken over 1.4 million times, of which 300,000 times are second assessments. Each person receives a confidential report with their GAT score and recommendations about how to develop strengths and improve weaknesses.

2)      Master Resilience Trainers – To date, over 6,000 soldiers have been trained as MRTs, leaders who have taken the comprehensive 10-day training course on building, sustaining and enhancing performance using resilience theory, cognitive behavior therapy and positive psychology principles. Each MRT returns to their unit to deliver training in small group settings.

Is the program working? Brig. Gen. Cornum reports that in a study comparing four brigades with training to four brigades who had not yet received training, results showed a statistically significant improvement in a variety of measures: increased optimism and adaptability; more positive coping skills; greater emotional and social fitness; and less catastrophic thinking.

The key to the CSF program is that it’s preventive. Brig. Gen. Cornum says, “Everybody can improve. It is not just aimed at someone who is clinical, high risk, or floundering. I have taken the 10-day MRT course in order to see what I was sending people to do. I learned some things, and I am pretty stinkin’ resilient to start with.”


Watch a short video where BG explains how CSF builds resiliency. Find out more about the psychological fitness tools used in Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. If you want to learn more about positive psychology, check out Martin E.P. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness site where you can register and take confidential questionnaires to measure your personal character strengths and aspects of happiness. Seligman is Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of bestsellers Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism and the recently published FlourishA Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Dr. Karen Reivich is Co-director, Penn Resiliency Project and co-author of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.

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Originally published on GE Healthy Outlook, November 11, 2011. Copyright Jane Langille.

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