Former POW shares resilience techniques

Brig. Gen. Cornum was shot down over Iraq in 1991


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Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Rhonda Cornum gives an introduction to the two-week Master Resilience Trainer program at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Education Center on Aug. 8. Airmen and civilians will spend 80 class hours learning how to teach resilience techniques to their respective units.

U.S. Air Force photos/Luke Waack

One of the military’s leading resilience experts spoke to an audience of Soldiers, Airmen and civilians at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Education Center lecture hall, Monday about how to build mentally stronger troops and families.

Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Rhonda Cornum, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness director, and former prisoner of war, was a captive of Iraqi forces for eight days in 1991, after the Black Hawk helicopter she served on as a flight surgeon was shot down.

Of the eight-person crew, five died in the crash.

Cornum talked to her audience about what went through her mind while she was held prisoner and how her thought processes then apply to what troops in combat and families at home are going through now.

Techniques she used to survive her imprisonment and thrive after her ordeal are part of the training her team will teach to selected unit representatives.

Instructors will teach a program which was developed by Cornum and others at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania and the Army Center for Enhanced Performance.

“Academically, I believe that this is really important,” Cornum said. “There have been 17 published studies that show that this program works, in terms of improving peoples outcomes. Personally, I know it works because I apply those skills to my life.”

Cornum survived being shot down, breaking bothArmy Sgt. Frank Bateman listens to an introduction to the two-week Master Resilience Trainer program at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Education Center on Aug. 8. Seventy-three Soldiers, Airmen and civilians will spend 80 class hours learning how to teach resilience techniques to their respective units.  arms and being threatened with death by Iraqi forces.

“I got shot down, broke a bunch of bones, got shot,” Cornum said. “I had the mock execution with the Iraqi guy with the gun to the back of my head - you don’t know

it’s a mock execution of course until you’re still alive at the end of it.”

Cornum said she has always tried to turn a disadvantage into an advantage, even when she was faced point-blank with the end of her life.

“I was racking my brain looking for an advantage to this,” Cornum said. “The only thing I could come up with at the time was ‘At least it won’t hurt.’”

This technique is called cognitive reframing, she said, and MRT class members will learn to teach this method and others to members of their units and organizations.

Cornum said after she got back and continued her career people often asked her how she handled being a POW.

These questions led her to conduct research in the methods with which people overcome adversity, she said.

The MRT course draws on scientifically-proven research to identify techniques for overcoming stress and strain, according to the course’s primary civilian instructor.

“The last 20 years of research, of studying this has enabled a lot of answers to those questions so now we have a pretty good sense of what the component parts are to resilience,” said Bob Szybist, Master Resilient Trainer Course, primary instructor. “We’re going to define that, we’re going to break it down and then we’re going to learn the skills that enable those things to happen.”

Szybist, Cornum and Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Palumbo, U.S. Army Alaska, commanding general gave opening remarks to kick off the two weeks of resilience training.

Approximately 73 unit representatives from JBER, Fort Wainwright, Fort Greely, Fort Shafter and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, including Airmen, as well as Army and Air Force civilians were present on day one.

Class instructors teach five modules: defining resilience, mental toughness, character strengths, building strong relationships and sustainment.

Palumbo encouraged the students to take the training seriously, so they could learn and pass the benefits along to others.

“Every one of you is so important to Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Palumbo said. “Here in USARAK, I call it Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, because you can’t have a strong, ready Soldier without a strong, ready family. The tools you’re going to learn here in this next 10 days in the curriculum are going to be so important.”

The key to training, is sharing and teaching once class is done, Palumbo said.

“You’re not learning just for you - although I think it’s going to help you and your families, no doubt about it,” Palumbo said. “You are going to get better - but it’s about the team.”

Palumbo challenged the group to spread the training once they finish.

After completing the course, trainers will be able to provide small-group, pre- and post-deployment resilience education to their units, with a quarterly requirement of two hours minimum.

In USARAK, each Soldier will receive 20 hours of resilience training, Palumbo said.

The program started out as a resource for Soldiers, but the rest of the military and families can now access the Global Assessment Tool, which can help identify potential problems.

Online resilience training is also available to promote resilience awareness, education and improvement.

“For families, we’ve made it much easier now to access the GAT and the online training,” Cornum said.

Families can use a Common Access Card or register once online to gain access to resilience resources.

Soldiers and families can visit www.us.army.mil and look for the Self Service and My Medical pages for access to the GAT and online resilience training.

At www.my.af.mil, on the Life & Career and Health pages, Airmen can complete pre- and post- deployment resilience training, as well as the post-deployment health reassessment.

Visit www.resilience.army.mil for more information about the MRT program.

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