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Follow-up visit: The Rumor Doctor's dissertation on stress cards

In August, The Rumor Doctor thought he had thoroughly debunked the myth that the Army once issued recruits "stress cards," which soldiers allegedly could show to a drill sergeant when they felt overwhelmed by the physical and mental stress of basic training.

But a few of you said there was more to the story.

"Oh yes there was Stress Cards," one reader commented online." The soldier would put his thumb on it and it would display a certain color. Like a mood ring. I KNOW this for a FACT, I had a soldier come into my office and present it to me, I threw him and this stupid card out of my office, and told him Welcome to the real Army."

Sure enough, another reader sent The Rumor Doctor a picture of a "stress control card" that fit the above description, so The Doctor opted to give the matter a closer examination.

There is nothing on the card that indicates it can be used to call a timeout if a soldier is feeling stressed. Instead, the card allows soldiers to measure their stress levels by pressing their thumbs against it for 10 seconds. Then the card would turn a different color, ranging from blue for "relaxed" to black for "most stressed."

The card also has tips for how soldiers can reduce their stress levels, such as, "Imagine yourself basking in the warm sun on a beach or soaking in a hot tub until you can actually feel warmth come into your hands."

Issued by the Army at various times, the cards were forerunners to the current Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, said Army spokesman George B. Wright. They were meant to be "handy reminders" of the toll stress can take on soldiers.

"It wasn't a get out of jail -- or get out of PT -- free card, so your drill sergeant won't yell at you," Wright told The Rumor Doctor.

The term "stress card" appears to have been coined by a committee appointed in 1997 to look into military training issues. Led by Nancy Kassebaum Baker, then a senator from Kansas, the committee found problems with integrating men and women during basic training, noting that many people complained that basic training had "gone soft."

At the time, the Navy was issuing recruits in the late 90s "Blue Cards," called such because if  recruits felt feeling blue, they could present the card to a trainer, and a commander would make sure they got the help they needed, said  LT Chris Bennett, a spokesman for the Navy's  Recruit Training Command.

The commission recommended the Navy get rid of what it called "stress cards."

"The Navy issues a card to every new recruit that includes information about whom to contact 'if things pile up,'" the report said. "The committees recognizes the importance of informing new recruits about support services upon their arrival at basic training. But concerns were raised by Navy trainers about Navy recruits who raise their cards while being disciplined as a way of signaling a time-out."

William Cohen, defense secretary at the time, decided against segregating men and women, but he did vow to make basic training tougher across the services.

"I don't think we should be making exceptions for people who are unwilling to get in the best possible physical condition and also be challenged," Cohen said in a March 1998 news conference. "The notion that … the Navy had a policy of holding up stress, that no longer is going to be in effect. The notion that a drill sergeant cannot grab a rifle out of the hand of a recruit without asking permission is no longer going to be tolerated. Those things have to change, and they will change."

THE RUMOR DOCTOR'S DIAGNOSIS:  By criticizing the Navy, the Kassebaum Baker committee gave rise to the legend of "stress cards," not to be confused with the Army's "stress control cards." The report itself reflects a time when America was not at war,  so its concerns seem trivial by today's standards. If you want to know more about what peacetime was like, ask your parents.

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