WASHINGTON (July 24, 2014) – In December 2013, the Army Study Program Management Office published “PTSD – Is Mental Armor Possible?”
The article discussed the predominance of tragic accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, from both the Soldier and civilian communities. PTSD, the reaction to experiencing or witnessing one or more terrible events including combat, rape, physical assault, and national disasters, has been the focus of numerous studies to determine a successful treatment.
The focus of the study for the Army Study Program for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, took a different approach.
The basic question examined was, “what if instead of placing the focus on how to treat PTSD once an individual is suffering, can the Army help Soldiers develop “mental armor” to deter PTSD?”
In the fiscal year 2014 study, “Design, Implement, and Demonstrate Integrated Training to Optimize Human Performance and Discourage PTSD and Suicide,” known as the Squad Overmatch Study, the goal is to demonstrate how to train the Soldier to recognize and apply learned techniques to manage psychological stress experienced in a combat-realistic, controlled, repeatable, and reviewable simulated environment while exercising warrior skills.
The study team concluded with an outbrief June 25, at the Fort Benning, Georgia, Clark Simulation Center, where the training was conducted. The study was aimed at developing an instructional approach, and a graduated stress exposure model for integrated training.
The team from the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, the Army Research Laboratory, and the MITRE Corporation among others, hosted team members from several organizations, including federal law enforcement agencies, Special Operations Command, and the Army Study Program Management Office.
The guests were briefed on the methodologies applied to the training, and walked through the Clark Simulation Center to see the classroom portion, where Soldiers employ the most recent version of the Army’s 3-D virtual training game, Virtual Battle Space 3. VBS3 allows players to personalize their avatar within the simulation, including their own height, weight, Army Physical Fitness Test scores and even their weapons qualifications scores.
Next, observers were given a briefing, and then watched a video that allowed them to see exactly what the Soldiers see, as well as the Dismounted Soldier Training System equipment that provides for a separate virtual training experience in a live, indoor environment. Finally, guests were transported to the CACTF Live Environment Demonstration, which took place in an actual replication of a typical village that Soldiers encounter in Afghanistan.
The team performed several demonstrations, including simulated enemy fire and a simulated explosion from an improvised explosive device. The realism of the training was enhanced by live actors combined with interactive avatars that test Soldiers’ ability to pick up on facial and voice cues, as would be the case when communicating with the local populations they encounter in theater. In order to create the most realistic environment possible, visual, audio, olfactory, and tactile stimuli were utilized.
The Squad Overmatch Study team employed a study methodology using experimental learning and guided practice based on realistic cases to assess how advanced situational awareness skills, combined with stress management methods, facilitate recognition, perception, and adaptation to combat stressors by simulating their effects under realistic combat conditions.
The Stress Exposure Training, or STE, model incorporated situation awareness and stress management with foundation skills and enhanced realism, consisting of four key experiential learning tenets: continuum (when we train), scenarios (what we train), technology/cognitive realism (believable presentation) and an integrated after action report or AAR (how we learn). The methodology implemented accelerated two day study sessions that simulated opportunities to learn skills that would normally be spread over the two year warrior skill training continuum.
By using graduated levels of SET (resilience and situational awareness) skills, Soldiers were exposed to situations that develop coping skills, provide for tactical cues such as body language and interrogation, opportunities to determine decision points, and varying levels of stress. The squads were provided cues and factors to apply decisions and problem solving skills. Additionally, the technology utilized by the team eliminated standard pop-up targets and replaced the unrealistic targets with virtual targets and interactive avatars controlled by an unseen actor who fully interacted with the Squads. The interaction provided by the virtual targets allowed the opportunity for Soldiers to read body language and learn to sense deception.
The avatars were so realistic that when wounded by a Soldier’s weapon, the avatar convincingly bled and showed wounds and trauma.
During the outbrief, the study team discussed the methodology take away from their work. This takeaway included focusing on skill development and adult learning strategies and aligning instructional tools with learning requirements; sequencing SET skills training based on the stage of learning and construct scenarios to practice decision making and problem solving; implementation of technologies that support experiential learning; and finally, in the AAR, reflection on experiences to change individual mental models and reinforce learning with coaching and feedback with guided team self correction. The study did not place emphasis on changing what Soldiers did. If focused on what they thought.
The team concluded that implementing Human Dimension Training across multiple mission training areas will require a paradigm shift in Army training methodology. However, the various and often overlapping missions of organizations result in fragmented implementation. The next steps for this study are to mature the continuum, scenarios and technology; develop a skills task list with the related desired behavior development scenario; ensure that there are no simplicities and that the Squad must work as a dedicated cross-functional team; and finally, the establishment of a Center of Excellence for Overmatch Training: development, integration, testing, and implementation strategy.
The final study report and related recommendations will be submitted to the Army Study Program Management Office no later than Sept. 30. Fort Benning’s Maneuver CoE has expressed interest in sponsoring the next phase of work and will submit a proposal at the Army Study Program Scoring Conference in August.