Staff Sgt. Kenny Griffith was shot three times with an AK-47 during an all-night firefight while on a 2008 mission in an Iraqi village.
When he returned from deployment, the memories haunted him. He suffered from anxiety, he said, and on most nights had trouble sleeping. During physical activities, breathing was difficult because of his injuries. The bullets had struck his chest and left arm, tearing 60 percent of his triceps muscle.
Two years later, in preparation for the Warrior Games, a U.S. Paralympics-style competition for wounded soldiers, Griffith, 25, started sessions under the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness-Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program at Fort Hood. Through the courses, performance enhancement specialists take all of the psychological, emotional and social skills that are so valuable in the world of sports and train soldiers to apply them to every aspect of what is often a stressful military life.
Trainers said the goal is to build better soldiers — men and women who have a high self-awareness and can self-regulate.
For Griffith, the program changed his perspective on everything.
"I had to adapt and overcome," he said. "It made me realize that if you work hard at something and you set your mind to it, and focus mentally as well as physically, you can accomplish it."
The initiative is an offshoot of a similar sports program developed in the 1990s at the Center for Enhanced Performance at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Cadets there saw an improvement not only in their sports skills but also in life outside the military.
The demand for the training after graduation led military officials to expand the program more than four years ago to the entire Army. It is now available at 12 military bases across the country, including Fort Hood in Killeen, Fort Bliss in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The program is free for soldiers and their family members.
On the football field, NFL players make it look easy. The quick, pinpoint passes. The 50-yard sprints to make that graceful, seemingly effortless catch. But the challenges to improvement for such elite athletes are not only physical, sports psychologists say. Many are mental.
Top competitors set goals and learn to channel their energy so that they know exactly how to focus their attention irrespective of the circumstances. They tend to be certain of their abilities and what they can accomplish in spite of who or where they are playing, said Jon Metzler, a senior researcher of performance psychology for the program.
"The bottom line is we want the soldier to be in control of his or her own performance regardless of the environment or the situation, whether they are under fire or just training," Metzler said.
For a soldier, the pressure to master those strategies and the uncontrollable variables are even greater. Instead of competing for trophies or titles, they face life-and-death situations, said Arlene Bauer, a performance enhancement specialist.
"As an athlete, even if you are playing an away game, you can always see the venue or walk the field," she said. Soldiers "are not on stage."
Performance specialists work with soldiers who are preparing for overseas assignments, those returning from deployment, and sometimes their family members.
Before they are sent abroad, psychologists tend to work with troops in a unit setting, training them to combine mental strength techniques — such as breathing exercises, energy management and attention control — with their field exercises to help them score higher on physical aptitude tests and accomplish goals in mission simulations.
For instance, after soldiers have mastered the physical fundamentals of how to use a gun, the psychologists coach them to control their physiology to refine their aim, even in an adrenaline rush.
For soldiers returning from deployments, training efforts center on helping with the transition to another base or to civilian life. Many have suffered injuries abroad, such as severe brain trauma, back complications or amputations. The toughest challenge they face, specialists said, is getting back into a routine and family life.
With the war winding down and mounting suicide rates among its ranks, the Army has boosted its mental health training. But the performance program is not clinical, and psychologists cannot cure illnesses or disorders, said Dan Abroms, a performance enhancement specialist. Instead, he said, "we are teaching soldiers how to bounce back, thrive, how to reach one's full potential."
Studying the success of the program is hard because measuring performance in general is hard, though a team of experts at Fort Hood is currently undertaking that research, Metzler said.
But Griffith said the exercise routines and mental strategies he learned through his ongoing sessions have made retirement this fall after eight years in the military seem less daunting. He plans to pursue a business degree and uses the breathing techniques to relax at night.