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When members of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Forces return home from deployments, it’s not just their physical condition that requires attention.
From high suicide rates to post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s become apparent in recent years that these veterans’ psychological, social and spiritual needs must also be addressed.
Now a team of Colorado State University researchers has received a $231,743 grant to determine scientifically, for the first time, how an emerging strength and conditioning program affects those other areas of service members’ lives.
The Preservation of the Force and Family Program, which is sponsoring the study, was created in 2012 by U.S. Special Operations Command to take a more holistic approach in addressing the toll that more than a decade of deployments have taken on service members and their families. Its mission is to address four domains: human performance, psychological performance, spiritual performance and social performance.
CSU is one of the first universities to receive funding as part of the $11.8 million national effort to promote the psychological health of Special Operations Forces.
The Fort Carson project
The CSU team, led by Professor Tracy Nelson of the Department of Health and Exercise Science and Professor Lise Youngblade, head of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, will focus on the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.
CSU alumnus Paul Goldberg, the coordinator of the human performance program at the 10th SFG(A), said a 2015 pilot study conducted by Nelson and Youngblade showed encouraging signs that the program at Fort Carson has a positive impact on all four domains of service members’ lives, in areas like depression and sleep patterns.
“Intuitively, people know what exercise does for you, we just need to prove it,” said Goldberg, who said the program also includes access to nutritionists and physical therapists. “The program works. You go from being a special operator in hostile territory to coming home and being a husband and father. This program is intended to make the soldiers and their families healthier from the neck up and the neck down.”
Nelson and Youngblade, who will be joined in the research by Professor Manfred Diehl in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, say the study will not only provide lawmakers and policymakers evidence about the effectiveness of the program — it will hit home on a personal level.
“It’s just so meaningful to think about what these soldiers and families are going through, the sacrifices they’re making,” Nelson said. “I feel privileged to work on this. Nobody else has looked at the interaction between these domains over time.”
“We’re grateful for what they’ve done for us and the country,” Youngblade added. “It’s an honor to give a little back. We are committed to doing this the right way, because we respect the commitment they are making.”
The CSU study will use a battery of assessments — from blood tests to surveys — to look for patterns in how the four domains affect one another, especially human performance and psychological outcomes. About 250 service members will undergo testing twice a year for three years. In the spiritual realm, for example, they may be asked questions that indicate how compassionate, forgiving or religious they are.
“These four domains have some degree of interrelatedness,” said Doug Forcino, director of U.S. Special Operations Command programs in the Consortium for Health and Military Performance at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. “If you improve someone’s psychological performance, might that also improve the way they interact with others in their lives?”
If the research provides scientific proof that the human performance program is beneficial to the other three domains, the findings could be used to solidify and expand similar programs throughout the military — and other fields that are physically and psychologically demanding.
“What the military has needed historically is good, hard data,” said Associate Vice President for Research Hank Gardner, who spent 25 years in the Army Medical Department and now directs CSU’s new Office of Defense Engagement. “Hearing that this is a good program is nice. But that’s qualitative, and they want real evidence. Plus, this could translate to other occupations, like firefighters and police officers.”
“This has the potential to have groundbreaking effects on whether human performance program interventions are seen as effective,” he said.
An ongoing relationship
It’s not the first time CSU has worked with the 10th SFG(A): Medics from Fort Carson have done four-week rotations in CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, athletics training room and Hartshorn Health Center for years.
“I know that the folks in the human performance program at Fort Carson have a good relationship with Drs. Nelson and Youngblade, and CSU as a whole,” Forcino said. “We chose them because they have a history of working with the 10th Special Forces Group, and this was a logical extension of the work they had already done.”
“CSU has been nothing but helpful and professional,” Goldberg added. “I never had a bad day when I attended CSU. You don’t realize how special that group is until you get out in the real world. This is going to be a long relationship with them, and they’re going to help our soldiers.”
“This is affirmation of the quality of the researchers and staff of CSU and our commitment to making a difference for the people defending our nation and their families at home,” Gardner said. “I’m grateful for the continuing relationship we have with the patriots at the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson.”
Goldberg, who not only graduated from CSU with a master’s degree in food science and nutrition in 1997 but also served as an assistant strength coach in the athletics department for three years, said helping service members readjust and recharge — physically and mentally — is fulfilling.
“As a coach, you live for game day,” he said. “We don’t get to see their game day. Our reward is when they come back alive and healthy, and get to hold their kids again.”
Both of the departments involved are based in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.