Feature

When American Airlines Flight 77 roared overhead just seconds before crashing into the Pentagon, personnel at the nearby Naval Annex hit the deck. Then they raced outside to help.

That kind of response is typical, says APA Div. 19 (Military) President Janice H. Laurence, PhD, who was away from her office at the Annex the day of the attack. While most people run from disaster, she says, members of the military run toward it.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, military psychologists' responses have ranged from providing direct services to victims and their families to educating troops about stress to developing new ways to train military personnel in the fight against terrorism.

"No matter what they're doing, the most important role for military psychologists is to help people maintain their ability to concentrate on their jobs and do them well," says Laurence, a research professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Psychologists have to be the cheerleaders and confessors, taking care of individuals psychologically so that their minds, bodies and spirits are ready to do the hard jobs they'll be asked to do."

In the public sector...

Take Lt. Col. Larry James, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The day after the attack, James and other members of the Army's Stress Management Response Team headed over to the Pentagon.

Using the Pentagon's medical clinic as their headquarters, they provided critical incident stress debriefings to military and civilian personnel. They set up a family service center at a nearby hotel. And they kept an eye on the rescue workers outside.

"Most people just need to hear that they're having a normal response to an abnormal situation," says James. "We're not going to force all 22,000 people in the Pentagon to go through formal, structured debriefings."

James is now working with the Pentagon and the Surgeon General's Office to come up with a long-term mental health plan. The goal? Ensuring that the needs of both attack victims and Walter Reed's regular clients are met.

Other military psychologists are focusing on educational efforts. Lt. Col. Frank C. Budd, PhD, the behavioral sciences flight commander at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, emphasizes prevention when it comes to helping both service people and their families cope with stress.

"The extent to which you can effectively inoculate people from post-traumatic stress disorder is probably debatable from a research standpoint, but we feel it's helpful," he explains.

Budd's goal is to familiarize active-duty personnel with mental health concepts and resources before they need them. In addition to teaching base personnel about critical incident stress management, Budd and his team have also developed a booklet on trauma that personnel can take with them when they're deployed.

Service people aren't the only ones who need education, Budd emphasizes. He and his colleagues have helped set up support groups for spouses left behind after deployment. They're also forming support groups for the base's children, using art therapy and other expressive techniques to help the children manage their fears.

Educating military leaders is especially important, says Lt. Col. Paul T. Bartone, PhD, director of the Leader Development Research Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. After the attacks, Bartone distributed an information paper for leaders and teachers that has since been widely disseminated throughout the military.

Drawing on experiences with past disasters, the paper offers recommendations for effective "grief leadership." In crises like this one, says Bartone, effective leaders grieve openly, communicate honestly about what's happening and work to get the unit back to "mission-ready" status. Establishing links between the event and the military's mission is key.

"There's a very powerful ethos within military culture to go on with the mission even when units suffer tremendous losses," says Bartone, who visited the World Trade Center site soon after the attacks to see how National Guardsmen and others were holding up. "But with events like this one, it's important for the long-term health and adaptation of individuals and units to mourn the losses."

...and the private sector

Military psychologists in the private sector are also eager to help. One is William J. Strickland, PhD, a past president of Div. 19 and vice president of the defense contracting company Human Resources Research Organization in Alexandria, Va.

Although Strickland and his colleagues haven't been directly involved in responses to the attacks, they are thinking about how they can help train military personnel to avert similar attacks. One possibility is to develop simulation-based training tools to help personnel learn how to sift through intelligence data.

"Psychologists have a lot to offer here," says Strickland. "Unfortunately, this may be a growth field."

APA is also gearing up to help. In response to the attacks, APA's Board of Directors created a Sub-committee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism. Chaired by APA Recording Secretary Ronald F. Levant, EdD, the subcommittee is offering psychologists' expertise to decision-makers in the military, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State and related agencies. The subcommittee is inventorying members' expertise and asking government psychologists how agencies could put that expertise to use.

One possibility would be to help the military design effective psychological operations. According to military experts, so-called "psyops" are probably already occurring in Afghanistan. In conflicts like this one, special teams often use radio broadcasts, leaflets and other means to demoralize the enemy and promote democracy to civilians. Psychologists specializing in social psychology, multicultural psychology or related fields could also help the military understand the mindset of terrorists and supporters, says Levant.

"Terrorism is in many ways a psychological form of warfare," says Levant, dean and professor at the Center for Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "As one of the lead-ing scientific groups in the country, we have a lot to offer in the fight against it."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.