One of the reasons that Gen. Stanley McChrystal can argue that victory in Afghanistan is achievable is that he counts on a force forged in the years since 9/11 into a superb instrument for irregular warfare. Indeed, Americans in uniform have done much to rescue American strategists from their mistakes.
Yet we in Washington take the quality of the force too much for granted. We tend either to stand in awe of people in uniform or pity them; rarely do we devote much effort to simply understand them, be it individually or collectively. Tomorrow, CDS will try to rectify that with a conference "Surviving and Thriving in Harm's Way," a look at how soldiers are managing the many stresses of repeat deployments to some very cruel wars.
We'll begin with a presentation from Nate Self, a former Army Ranger who led the desperate fight of "Roberts' Ridge" in March 2002, during Operation Anaconda which swept the last major al Qaeda force out of Afghanistan. Though Self and his men passed a pure test of courage under fire--the fight has passed into Ranger legend and is honored in displays at Ranger Regiment headquarters--he suffered from a severe case of post-combat stress that drove him from the Army. Yet despite the contention of professional PTSD advocates, Self is not only himself recovering from his trauma but now works with other soldiers who suffer from similar problems.
And we will conclude with a presentation from Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, another stoic soldier. In 1991, while serving as a flight surgeon on a search-and-rescue mission to save a downed F-16 pilot, the Blackhawk helicopter carrying Cornum was shot down; many of the crew were killed and she was held as a prisoner of war until the cessation of hostilities. Her subsequent memoir, She Went to War, focused the debate on women's roles in combat. An M.D. and PhD., Cornum now heads the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a effort to prepare soldiers and their families for the personal challenges they now face.
AEI's Sally Satel will also moderate a panel assessing and discussing new clinical thinking about PTSD. Many of elements of past PTSD mythology--especially those that comprise the caricature of the "broken veteran" in popular culture--do not withstand rigorous scientific scrutiny.
In sum, this promises to be a conference that digs more deeply in search of the understanding needed to formulate wise personnel policies for the "Long War." For if we do "break the force"--if we break these people--we cannot win.
More on Surviving and Thriving in Harm's Way - Friday, September 25, 2009; 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM; Wohlstetter Conference Center, Twelfth Floor, American Enterprise Institute; Washington D.C.