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'Mental armor': New training strategy takes warrior toughness to next level

The infantry soldiers pick up sounds and smells from the village. They see enemy fire take down a woman in front of them, see her bleeding, hear her friend screaming.

As they clear a building and move upstairs, a grenade blast takes out a gunman and his hostages, an old man and a boy. Outside, a blast injures two fellow squad members. In an instant, the soldiers must assess what to do first.

Afterward, the soldiers report on how they are dealing with what they saw.

This is one in a series of scenarios an Army team has devised to make immersive training as realistic as possible, then go beyond that to put soldiers into stressful combat training situations, each more intense than the last, to give them mental endurance for what they will experience on the battlefield and to cope with it afterward.

The new training approach is aimed directly at preventing post-traumatic stress and ultimately saving soldiers' lives.

It calls for a major shift in how the Army trains soldiers, how it prepares them for the smoky, smelly, nerve-wrenching reality of the combat zone, say officials and researchers with the Squad Overmatch Study, an Army project by military, academic and industry experts. The study focuses on how to combine the most advanced training methods and technologies with stress management, resilience and situational awareness skills throughout soldiers' warrior training.

The training "does require a paradigm shift," said Rob Wolf, Squad Overmatch Study project director with the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI. "It's not so much about what they do, it's training how they think. … Everything about this is mental armor."

Members of four squads from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, have gone through the Stress Exposure Training to provide feedback. Some had deployed before, some had not.

Some soldiers reacted to the scenarios as if the events were real: A squad leader was distracted by screaming from a role player whose character's mother had just been killed in a search-and-clear operation. He told his team to "go tell that girl to shut the [expletive] up."

"When you kill someone, you hear the thud and see the spray," said another soldier about the realistic training, quoted in the Squad Overmatch Study report.

In one scenario, soldiers encounter a simulated IED blast. If they feel a vibration from the haptic belts they are wearing, they know they've been wounded and they must act as if they're injured so their buddies can react.

"I went cold when I experienced the IED attack," one soldier said in the report.

The study is addressing a significant way that training falls short: While the basic training-to-deployment cycle develops warrior skills, it largely overlooks the "human dimension."

"We know we need to change the way we train, that's for sure," Wolf told Army Times. "This program is providing recommendations for how to go about doing that."

The team developed the Squad Integrated Training Approach for soldiers to learn and practice cognitive resilience, mental performance and situational awareness. A key part of that is Stress Exposure Training, based on research and experimentation in the armed services and law enforcement organizations.

The scenarios use gaming, virtual and live environments to make the situations increasingly real and gradually more stressful. Soldiers use Virtual Battlespace Space 3 gaming, an immersive experience with the Dismounted Soldier Training System. They interact with reactive avatars that are expressive enough to show signs of deception in their body language, and realistic enough to show wounds and bleed. 

Soldiers encounter smells such as incense in a church or baking bread in the home where the hostages were being held upstairs.

The sensory immersion makes the scenarios more convincingly stressful so soldiers can learn cognitive and coping skills to deal with it, Wolf said.

Later on, soldiers can use the skills to replay and review those situations, and think through how to deal with them.

The Army supports the study as part of its wide-ranging effort to improve soldiers' performance, readiness and resilience. The Squad Overmatch effort fits into the Army Strategic Planning Guidance, which calls for emphasizing the human dimension and training for operational adaptability, and to build the power of fighting formations so that "our squads are never again in a fair fight," the report states.

The study also relates to the Army's Human Dimension and Force 2025 initiatives.

Squad Overmatch has gained recognition within the Army: It has won the national Army Modeling and Simulation Award for team training.

In the scenarios, soldiers are exposed to eight major combat stressors, identified in coordination with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research:

  • Member of patrol/unit killed in action.
  • Wounded in action, or team member wounded in action.
  • Engaging an enemy with direct fire or returning fire.
  • Indirect fire attack from incoming artillery, rocket or mortar fire.
  • Clearing or searching homes or buildings.
  • Seeing ill or injured women or children and being unable to help.
  • Responsible for the death of a noncombatant.
  • Responsible for the death of an enemy combatant.

Other stressors identified, but not used in the scenarios include:

  • Attack by enemy on forward operating base or patrol base perimeter.
  • Exposure to human remains.
  • Had a close call, was shot or hit, but was saved by protective gear.

A squad's soldiers learn to work together and lean on each other. Members of squads that participated in the study said they "felt they were a more cohesive unit and more competent" after the experience, according to the report.

Squad members' after-action reports are a key move forward from current practices, according to the report, focusing more on giving feedback on cognitive performance for the individual.

The team designed after-action questions to get feedback on the stress soldiers felt during the scenarios, and how they applied their cognitive skills. The team looked at decision-making, performance, stress management and behavior pattern recognition.

"At the end of each squad's final AAR, the passion the squads shared about the training value and methodology was inspiring. … They realized its potential to enhance squad performance and save lives," the team wrote in the report.

The takeaway

Among the lessons learned: Scenarios should progressively add stress and complexity to align with stages of soldier development throughout their training. Also, the scenarios should develop tactical thinking skills, encouraging soldiers to practice being supportive of each othersupportiveness, communication, information sharing and leadership.

The way ahead for the Army to integrate the realistic training would be to create a Center of Excellence for Human Dimension Training, the team said in the report. The center would establish requirements to add human dimension skills into the Army Training Strategy and the Army Learning Model, and supplement training aids with technologies to assist soldiers in training for resilience.

It also would give oversight for developing, testing and implementing strategy for graduated exposure to stress in training.

The team's recommendations to move warrior training forward include:

  • Expand emphasis on cognitive skills development in training and after-action reviews.
  • Inject technologies into existing training devices for warrior skills that are proven to act as combat stressors.
  • Incorporate cognitive skills into current warrior skills instruction.
  • Increase availability of Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program and Advanced Situational Awareness instruction.
  • Put more stressors into the Squad Overmatch scenarios.
  • Use training aids such as interactive avatars in live scenarios to make training more realistic.
  • Set up a live/virtual/gaming architecture with common gaming standards for behavior and movements of avatars to make them more lifelike.

"We must find ways to make cognitive skills training as routinely available to every Soldier as fundamental warrior skills training," the team concluded.

While acknowledging that "training in warrior skills already consumes the entire training continuum of the Train/Ready phase of Army Force Generation," and all units feel the strain of Army budget cuts, "the solution depends on maximizing benefit across all skill sets from every training hour and training dollar."

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