FORT JACKSON, SC -- The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, designed to help troops fight the mental stress associated with combat, will be added to basic training programs beginning Oct. 1, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told reporters at Fort Jackson, SC, last week.

The program will be covered in the first week of basic training and be continued throughout all levels of training for officers and enlisted personnel, he said.

“We were heavily weighted on providing assistance and treatment after we identified the problem, and we were a little light on the preventive side,” Casey said in a press conference. “Because the treadmill that we’ve been on as an Army for the last eight years and likely will be on for some years to come is such, if we don’t give soldiers these skills, we’re just going to have increasing challenges.”

There were a record number of soldier suicides in 2008, which pushed the rate of military suicides past the civilian one for the first time since the Army began keeping records.

“A year or so ago when we began thinking about this, we saw the suicide rates climbing, and I remember the futility of sitting there and talking about, what could we have done differently, why didn't we see this?” Casey said. “I thought we need to focus more on giving soldiers the tools that they need and never got.”

One training portion of the program will bring sergeants to the University of Pennsylvania to study with the staff of the Positive Psychology Center. Fifty noncommissioned officers will begin with a week of training at the center, with 300 more scheduled to arrive in November and December.

The initiative at the University of Pennsylvania will cost $100 million over three years. The program will include periodic assessments of soldiers’ mental fitness in four areas: emotional, social, family and spiritual.

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a doctor with a Ph.D. in nutrition and biochemistry, will direct the initiative. The Army, she said, historically has done a better job teaching physical fitness and technical skills than teaching soldiers how to address emotions.

At Fort Jackson, Casey said drill sergeants probably will teach the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program in basic training.

“This is something drill sergeants are going to have in their kit bag and when they finish shooting on the range and they’re sitting around under a tree waiting for the truck to come, they can work on some of these skill sets,” Casey said.