SEALs Spearhead Resiliency Program for Operators, Families
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CORONADO, Calif., Oct. 17, 2008 When the military looks for innovation, it typically turns to its special operators – those elite forces on the cutting edge of new equipment, tactics and techniques.
So if a new program here proves as successful as expected in helping Navy SEALs and their families cope with multiple deployments, officials hope to expand it, not just throughout the special operations community, but military-wide.
Several hundred SEALs and their support forces just back from deployments, as well as their family members, will take off next weekend for four days at a popular resort.
The retreat is part of a unique new Naval Special Warfare Group 1 program to build resiliency within the force, explained Wally Graves III, the group’s family support coordinator.
Few military units are as heavily stressed as special operators. These elite forces have endured repeated deployments since Sept. 11, 2001, and typically operate in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. Many members of the West Coast SEAL teams, for example, have deployed forward seven or more times.
Intensive training and discipline builds a breed of warfighters who pride themselves in physical, mental and emotional toughness that’s critical to their missions, Graves said.
A retired SEAL himself, Graves said he believes combat stress isn’t all bad for warfighters. “Ten pounds of [post-traumatic stress disorder] is good in war. It’s hyperactivity, it’s anger, it’s all the good stuff that keeps you alive on the battlefield,” he said. “But 400 pounds of PTSD after you get home is not good.”
The new resiliency program is designed to identify and treat symptoms of combat stress early to prevent them from becoming bigger problems, Graves said.
“We need to get out front and be proactive,” he said. “You nip it in the bud. You educate everyone, provide training for the high-risk category and then intervene when you have to prevent this from becoming a life-lasting problem or stigma.”
And in the process, Graves said, the effort builds force readiness by ensuring the SEALs are ready to turn around for the next deployment.
There’s new recognition within the SEAL community that “under the exoskeleton of a warrior is still a human being,” he said. When that human being is in distress – whether suffering from post-traumatic stress or experiencing family turmoil brought on by repeated deployments – the warrior can’t operate at his peak.
As NSWG-1 strives to build resiliency within its force, it’s extending that effort to families. “The culture has changed, from the leadership on down,” Graves said. “There’s a recognition that family readiness is a big component of force readiness.”
SEAL families are a special breed, Graves is quick to note. “Our wives are fantastic. They’re not complainers,” he said. “But our goal is to give them tools that will empower them so they can survive and thrive.”
The Family Resiliency Enterprise seeks to accomplish that through three steps: assessing individual sailors’ and family members’ needs; providing educational programs and services tailored to those needs; and helping newly reunited families reintegrate after deployments.
Screening is conducted using scientifically-proven computer software programs, neuro-cognitive measuring equipment and questionnaires. NSWG-1 has started screening its members and soon will offer these assessments on a voluntary basis to their spouses and children ages 8 to 18.
The assessments provide important insights into individual and family psychological, financial and psychosocial well-being, Graves said.
For the sailors, these screenings represent a baseline that, when compared to future post-deployment assessments, will provide objective measure for traumatic brain injuries and combat stress symptoms.
The findings also help the command tailor the training, education programs and other activities it offers to meet the community’s needs. These efforts run the gamut, from interpersonal communication workshops to parenting and financial planning classes to command-sponsored activities for spouses and children.
“Each SEAL is responsible for his own family readiness,” Graves said. “We are just providing him the tools that he can use, either as a mirror image, or in developing his own.”
As part of this effort, NSWG-1 has piggybacked on the Marine Corps’ Project FOCUS – Families Overcoming Under Stress -- program. The Marine Corps launched FOCUS at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and has expanded it to several other locations to help families cope with multiple combat deployments. NSWG-1 announced its new FOCUS program during a town hall meeting this summer and encouraged families to take advantage of its offerings.
The third phase of the resiliency program is designed to help redeploying SEALs leave the stresses of combat behind and ease back into family life.
Next week’s retreat is expected to be a highlight of the program, giving the sailors and their families a chance to kick back and enjoy each other as they tap into educational programs and other services to help them through the reintegration process.
“There will be a delicatessen of psychological education tolls there,” Graves said.
Graves emphasized that the retreat isn’t a Morale, Welfare and Recreation outing or field trip, and that it has specific objectives for the participants.
“What we are doing is transferring them from a combat mindset, giving them the opportunity to process what they went through, then helping them reenergize,” he said.
Graves called the NSWG-1’s resiliency program a “great litmus test” for the rest of the military in how to help servicemembers and their families through the challenges of military life and combat deployments.
SEALs, he said, are the perfect community to test out the concept.
“We’re small, we’re innovators, we’re not constrained, and we’ll use out-of-the-box thinking to get the job done,” he said. “That’s the way we’re trained to operate, and it brings a lot of perspective to process improvement.”
Graves said he’s optimistic the resiliency program will strengthen families so they have the confidence and resources to stand up to tough times, while enhancing the readiness of the SEAL community.
“What we’re doing is taking a good warrior and making him a great warrior,” he said.