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About 3o uniformed soldiers sat at long tables inside a large kitchen at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, filling cups with yogurt, granola, and fruit.
Before filling their cups, soldiers filled out lists of stressful events they’ve experienced over the past year. Each life event and parfait ingredient were assigned point values. The parfait exercise serves as a three-dimensional metaphor for the varying levels of stress the soldiers were experiencing at work and at home.
This is no ordinary training exercise – and for some, it’s one of the most challenging and uncomfortable courses they’ll take as part of the required resiliency training each soldier receives at various bases. The Community Table course at the Vogel Resiliency Center is unique to Fort Sam in the way that it uses culinary arts to demonstrate holistic methods of sustaining mental and physical health.
“We’re trying to put resiliency into tangible and more actionable terms than some of your other resiliency training might have had,” said Christine Edwards Abraham, the Vogel Center’s director of Culinary Health. “The whole idea is that we make this an experiential learning activity.”
The center, which opened in 2018, offers wellness programs for active-duty personnel, veterans, and their families focused on improving physical, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being.
“I think I need my own tray [of ingredients],” joked one soldier, who had pilled his cup so high with ingredients that it threatened to topple over. Several soldiers had scores above 500 and 600.
A score of 300 or more increases the chance of mental or physical health breakdown over the next two years by 80 percent, according to the prediction model.
This course about personal connection, mindfulness, and mindset could one day save their lives, said Dr. Patricia A. Ruiz, director of the Vogel Center, who co-teaches the class with Abraham. The class serves as an introduction to practices that can preempt mental health issues – depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder – that are common in veterans.
The class is made up of soldiers in all stages of their military service: some who just completed basic training, some have served several tours of duty, some are retiring soon.
Abraham, a 28-year Army veteran, said this holistic approach to resiliency can seem silly or corny to soldiers, who are not typically familiar with practicing meditation or mindfulness.
“But please experience it with us and judge it afterward,” she told the group. “If you judge it before you experience it, you’re not going to enjoy it.”
Some soldiers seemed to take the exercise more seriously than others at first – but by the time Abraham closed the class with guided meditation, the seldom-heard snickering melted away.
“We know that there are people in this room who are going to be like, ugh, whatever … this is for hippies,” said Ruiz, a 20-year Army veteran, clinician and behavior scientist. “It’s for anyone. … This is a medicine [and therapy] you can’t see and it’s cheaper.”
During the meditation session, they were asked to close their eyes as they sipped tea made with mint, peach, lemon, and honey.
“Bring your mind into this moment,” Abraham said in a low, soothing voice. “Feel the warmth of the tea in your hands. … As you sip the tea, hold it in your mouth. Notice the flavors. … Feel its warmth flow into your stomach.”
Before the meditation, Ruiz gives a crash course on the science behind the benefits of mindfulness, how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work and the difference between a reaction and a response.
“The brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised equal to that of the body,” Ruiz told the class. “You’ve all heard of the Art of War, correct?”
The group indicated that they had heard of the ancient Chinese military treatise by military strategist Sun Tzu.
“One of the many quotes in that is ‘Know yourself and you will win all battles.’ Knowing what this [brain] muscle does for us and exercising that muscle helps us with those battles not only with the [external] enemy but the enemy within.”
Sgt. First Class JT Miller, who was stationed here with his wife and children about three weeks ago from a base in Maryland, said the lessons learned in the hourlong class are relevant to the Army’s work and the soldier’s personal life.
“To sit us all down and tell us to be quiet and actually think about [being] present without being a sergeant major or colonel is actually really good,” Miller said. “They really corraled us and made us buy in. I think it’s important to understand presence and mindfulness. Our job is a daily thing. We have to constantly assess things, and if we’re too busy looking to the future or looking to the past, we’re not going to see the enemy in front of us.”
At first, he too was skeptical about the parfait exercise, Miller said.
“But then they explained, we’re using other senses to solidify our past stressors,” he said. “So it ties into knowing yourself better.”
Miller will be at Fort Sam for three or four years while he receives training to become a combat medic instructor.
“This class is definitely unique,” he said. “[Basic training teaches] you how to turn [the fight] on, but they don’t teach you how to turn it off, and I think this class teaches you how to turn it off. … It’s definitely a tool to address the problem of veteran homelessness and veteran suicide.”
It will take more than an hourlong class to do that, he admits. “It’s not the answer, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Soldiers at Fort Sam Houston must complete 16 hours of resiliency training. Other courses focus on concepts including mental agility, self-awareness, and tactical breathing. The Community Table course, which formally became part of resiliency training in August, also acts as a gateway to other elective courses offered in the Resiliency Kitchen, Abraham said.
The full-day “Resiliency Reset” course includes sections on communication, finances, and conflict healing.
The reset is aimed at helping soldiers who are on “hold status” as they await assignments, training courses to start, or discharge. They’re typically younger.
“They’re limited on what they can do while on hold,” Abraham said. “A lot of them are very bored … which can lead to frustration and acting out.”
This kind of mindfulness training blended with culinary art is likely the first of its kind in the military’s formal resiliency training curriculum, Abraham said, “but it could also be the last of its kind.”
“In the age of budget cuts and coronavirus, money is shifting around,” she said. “This is an area that the military says is important but isn’t always necessarily understood. Resiliency is a word that’s thrown out there. … It’s kind of intangible.”
So the Resiliency Kitchen tries to focus on connection, mindfulness, and mindset to make it a little more tangible, she said.
“Our Western culture is steeped in the medical model. And the idea of holistic is still fluffy and [mysterious] to a lot of people,” she said.
The idea of the courses, Ruiz said, is to “plant seeds” of mindfulness to give soldiers the tools to better handle depression and anxiety.
“I don’t expect them all to understand it, but one day they’re going to wake up and remember a couple of things that we talked about,” she said. Those seeds “could be life-saving.”