Army morale low despite 6-year, $287 million optimism program
By GREGG ZOROYA | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 17, 2015
More than half of some 770,000 soldiers are pessimistic about their future in the military and nearly as many are unhappy in their jobs, despite a six-year, $287 million campaign to make troops more optimistic and resilient, findings obtained by USA TODAY show.
Twelve months of data through early 2015 show that 403,564 soldiers, or 52 percent, scored badly in the area of optimism, agreeing with statements such as "I rarely count on good things happening to me." Forty-eight percent have little satisfaction in or commitment to their jobs.
The results stem from resiliency assessments that soldiers are required to take every year. In 2014, for the first time, the Army pulled data from those assessments to help commanders gauge the psychological and physical health of their troops.
The effort produced startlingly negative results. In addition to low optimism and job satisfaction, more than half reported poor nutrition and sleep, and only 14 percent said they are eating right and getting enough rest.
The Army began a program of positive psychology in 2009 in the midst of two wars and as suicide and mental illness were on the rise. To measure resiliency the Army created a confidential, online questionnaire that all soldiers, including the National Guard and Reserve, must fill out once a year.
Last year, Army scientists applied formulas to gauge servicewide morale based on the assessments. The results demonstrate that positive psychology "has not had much impact in terms of overall health," says David Rudd, president of the University of Memphis who served on a scientific panel critical of the resiliency program.
The Army offered contradictory responses to the findings obtained by USA TODAY.
Sharyn Saunders, chief of the Army Resiliency Directorate that produced the data, initially disavowed the results.
"I've sat and looked at your numbers for quite some time and our team can't figure out how your numbers came about," she said in an interview in March.
However, when USA TODAY provided her the supporting Army documents this week, her office acknowledged the data but said the formulas used to produce them were obsolete.
"We stand by our previous responses," it said in a statement.
Subsequent to USA TODAY's inquiry, the Army calculated new findings but lowered the threshold for a score to be a positive result. As a consequence, for example, only 9 percent of 704,000 score poorly in optimism.
The Army said the effort to use the questionnaire results to gauge morale Army-wide is experimental.
"We continue to refine our methodologies and threshold values to get the most accurate results possible," it said in the statement.
The Army's effort to use positive psychology to make soldiers more resilient has been controversial since its inception in 2009. A blue-ribbon panel of scientists from the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded last year that there is little or no evidence the program prevents mental illness. It argued there was no effort to test its efficacy before the Army embraced it . The panel cited research arguing that, in fact, the program could be harmful if it leaves soldiers with a false sense of resiliency.
The Army disputed the findings, pushing ahead with its positive psychology program that now costs more than $50 million a year. At least 2.45 million soldiers have taken a self-assessment test that is a crucial part of the resiliency program, and 28,000 GIs have been instructed on how to teach other soldiers the curriculum.
"The Army funds this program because the Army values the lives of soldiers and wants to instill skills and competencies that will enhance their connections, relationships and ability to mitigate stressors and exercise help seeking behaviors through their life," says an Army statement released last month.
But the internal data obtained by USA TODAY shows most soldiers today trending in the wrong direction. Two-thirds were borderline or worse for an area called "catastrophic thinking," where poor scores mean the soldier has trouble adapting to change or dwells on the worst possible things happening.
- Forty-eight percent or about 370,000 soldiers showed a lack of commitment to their job or would have chosen another if they had it to do over again. Only 28 percent felt good about what they do.
- About 300,000 soldiers or nearly 40% didn't trust their immediate supervisor or fellow soldiers in their unit or didn't feel respected or valued. Thirty-two percent felt good about about bosses and peers.
- In one positive trend, more than 400,000 soldiers or 53 percent said they were satisfied or extremely satisfied with their marriage, personal relationship or family. About 240,000 expressed dissatisfaction.
- For physical fitness, nearly 40 percent were in good shape, 28 percent were borderline, and 33 percent did poorly.
Retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, head of the Military Officers Association of America, and Joyce Raezer, executive of the National Military Family Association, said the results are not surprising. Fourteen years of war and recent decisions to downsize or cut funding for the military have left morale low, they said.
A recent survey by the Military Times and a Navy Retention Study also show troops increasingly unhappy.
Saunders defended the Army resiliency program, known officially as Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, as an effort that has resonated with soldiers.
"When we talk to soldiers, soldiers tell us about the life changes they've had," she says.
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