New Training Scenarios Help Military Develop Tough Minds in Tough Bodies

October 2014
Topics: Education and Training, Military Simulation, Psychology, Training Technologies, Social Behavior, Veterans Affairs
MITRE worked with psychologists and technology firms to design simulated scenarios that help prepare soldiers emotionally for active duty. This "mental armor" concept could potentially discourage PTS from taking root.
Soldiers use virtual reality technology in demonstrating how gradual stress exposure can potentially discourage post traumatic stress.

Our nation's military does a good job of training soldiers in the skills they require as warriors. What many of these warfighters lack, however, is adequate preparation for the trauma they may witness at war, and strategies for putting it behind them when their tour ends.

By Department of Veterans Affairs' estimates, 20 percent of the soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will experience some manifestation of post-traumatic stress (PTS). The situation is so critical the Army Study Program Management Office has made optimizing human performance and discouraging PTS its number one focus in 2014.

"Our consultants, including retired Sergeant Major Patrick Ogden, have told us that existing Army training emphasizes warrior skills—how to shoot, move, and communicate," says Paul Butler, a simulation and modeling lead engineer at MITRE. What today's young soldiers don't do as well involves decision-making, recognizing danger from afar, and quickly rebounding after experiencing a stressor. Little of the current training prepares the soldier for the types of stress Walter Reed Army Institute of Research identifies as the most powerful PTS triggers. These include having a friend or member of the unit killed in action or seeing innocent civilians injured or killed and being unable to help.

Current training also doesn't prepare them for the sensory overload they may encounter when deployed. "We've worked with psychologists who tell us you can't immerse soldiers in an intense training setting and overwhelm them with stressors if they haven't been gradually exposed or introduced to them," Butler says. Commanders on the ground agree, noting that after experiencing extreme combat stress many young soldiers freeze, when they need to help secure their squad, because they're not mentally prepared.

Preparing for the Real Thing

The Army worked with behavior specialists to understand what contributes to PTS and what cognitive skills could potentially enhance resilience and situational awareness. They identified 12 different resilience skills and six situational awareness skills that soldiers can develop. Based on this information, the MITRE team developed a program for building a "mental armor" that discourages PTS from taking root. The MITRE team had strong support from the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, & Instrumentation, the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., the Army Research Institute, the Army Research Laboratory, and the U.S Marine Corps Program Manager for Training Systems to develop the instructional strategy and recommendations for technologies that provide stressors and how to optimally insert decision points into operationally realistic scenarios.

In June, MITRE demonstrated this graduated stress exposure concept at Fort Benning. It begins with a customized video game and ends with a live exercise. Each step of the process provides layers of stimuli aimed at familiarizing the soldiers with the sights, smells, sounds, and scenarios they may encounter while deployed. Following the simulations, the team conducted an after-action review to gain soldier feedback, provide guidance, and discuss the emotional stressors that they incurred during the training and the effectiveness of the coping skills they applied. (See "A Two-day Trip into the Future" below.) The learning doesn't necessarily occur while soldiers are involved with the simulations, but afterward, Butler says. "Think of sports. You go through the game and play it, but afterward, when you break it down and study your films, you see the mistakes. That's when you gain the knowledge. Then, in the heat of the next game or the next engagement, you're reacting based on your training."

Young Minds are Most Vulnerable

The primary audience for the June demonstration was the soldiers who took part. However, the team also invited the Army's training capability managers to watch the demonstrations and get their feedback. In September, MITRE presented the Army with a summary of its demonstration's findings and recommendations. The training capability managers have the authority to augment training doctrine to include resilience training.

Although service members in other military branches—at all levels, active and retired—experience PTS, the focus of this study begins with the 19- to 21-year-olds on patrol. "The fact is, these young soldiers are experiencing the horrors up close, during ground-level fighting, and that's why we’ve put our initial focus there."

The idea is not original to MITRE or the U.S. Army, Butler adds. “The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center already employs the concept of stress exposure training. They are not the only ones thinking about it, but they have advanced the concept the farthest. The concept suggests that you have to help the soldiers understand what it feels like to experience a partner being injured or killed in action, to understand the environment, and anticipate the feelings you'll expect to have and build the cognitive skills needed to cope," Butler says. "Following the law enforcement model, we are trying to provide a mechanism for soldiers to build up mental resilience so they can stay focused during a stressful situation."

A Two-day Trip into the Future

MITRE designed a two-day program aimed at squad soldiers ages 19 to 21. During a demonstration at Fort Benning in June, four squads of soldiers began with classroom instruction on stress exposure training, and then proceed to video games that test their responses based on their impulse to shoot or not shoot.

In the next segment of the demonstration, the soldiers—wearing the uniform and equipment similar to what they would wear on patrol—experienced the video game from within a virtual world, courtesy of a helmet-mounted display.

The final stage involved live scenarios in a training village at Fort Benning, where they encountered a number of technologies to make the experience more realistic. For example, this phase introduced haptic, or sensory, feedback. When shot, the soldiers felt it. The training even included the smells a squad might encounter. MITRE identified a company that makes scent machines to lure mall shoppers to bakeries. In addition to cinnamon smells, the company replicates less desirable odors, including munitions, body odor, and decomposing flesh. Actors in remote locations animated avatars that interacted with the soldiers, requiring the soldiers to respond as they would in a real setting.

After the training, the program developers talked with the soldiers about what they learned, saw, and felt. They carefully noted what situations generated the greatest stress, what cognitive skills worked, and what didn’t work, and ideas for changing the training to make it most effective.

—by Molly Manchenton

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