Veterans of UChicago community honored for service and sacrifice

Prof. John Cacioppo speaks about research on resilience training for soldiers

University Communications

Military veterans have shaped the University of Chicago since its inception. Former University Presidents Harry Pratt Judson and Robert Maynard Hutchins were among them, as was alumnus John W. Rogers Sr., JD’48, who was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. Many vets also became trustees, and members of the UChicago faculty and staff.

“For 125 years, the University of Chicago has been a place where we have been committed to rigorous inquiry and freedom of expression,” said Provost Eric D. Isaacs. “Ensuring the very freedom that has made us who we are has significant costs, one of which is born by the men and women in the United States Armed Forces.”

On Nov. 11, Isaacs welcomed 85 veterans and guests gathered for the annual Veterans Day recognition event, hosted this year at the International House. Members of the UChicago ROTC presented the colors during the program, which also included a talk by Prof. John T. Cacioppo, who has studied resilience and resilience training in soldiers.

For many in the U.S. Armed Forces, the price of service is mental and emotional strain, which can lead to depression, hostility or post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly among those who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rhonda Cornum, former U.S. Army Brigadier General and a POW of the Persian Gulf War, was directing the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program when she enlisted Cacioppo for help. An expert on how social connections affect human health and physical functions—from the regulation of blood flow, to stress and the prevention of disease—Cacioppo established a research team to explore how social resilience could mitigate or ameliorate the effects of stressors.

“One of the first things we asked is whether social resilience acts like a vaccine or an antibiotic. Is it preventative or curative?” said Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “The data show it's more like a mother's touch after a child falls and skins its knee. If you comfort the child before it falls down, it's not all that helpful. But if you do this after it falls, it's somewhat curative.”

While there is more than one way to understand resilience, social resilience is the capacity to foster, engage in and sustain relationships and endure, recover and grow from significant stressors and isolation. Cacioppo found that social resilience after deployment diminished the PTSD, depression and aggressive behavior seen later in soldiers' lives.

Cacioppo noted in his presentation that by the time the average soldier is 24, he or she has moved from home, family and friends; has resided in two other states; traveled the world; has been promoted four times; has gotten married and had children; has had relationship and financial problems; is responsible for dozens of soldiers; maintains millions of dollars of equipment; and gets paid less than $40,000 a year. “Most of the stressors here are social in nature. It's not simply a matter of having social skills. It's teaching them new ways to think about and interact with people,” said Cacioppo, who emphasized that this kind of resilience can be taught and is most effective when training occurs early and often.

The presentation prompted Karen Pinc, who spent 20 years in the Air Force, to think about resilience in another way. “I can relate to it, but I have a different take,” said the former technical sergeant, whose service took her through places like Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Now a departmental administrator in the James Franck Institute, she applies her hard-won resilience to her work at the University. “The military helped me deal with adverse situations, and I learned how to put things in certain orders of importance. Things will get solved.”

Among those who attended the recognition event was Je Hoon Lee, who was a medic in the army. Lee, who was stationed in his native South Korea, was particularly taken with Cacioppo's discussion of the importance of cultural awareness. “I had to educate my colleagues about cultural differences. But there are many more platoons that don't have people like me,” said Lee. “His research sounds very effective. We need more resources like cultural awareness training to help more soldiers.”

Pinc and Lee are only two of the many veterans employed at UChicago. Former service men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines work or study in each of the schools of the University and nearly every division.

“Every day, your experiences in the military bring your sensibilities to the University of Chicago,” said Isaacs. “Your commitment to service, your commitment to sacrifice, your knowledge of what really counts, is having an impact on colleagues all around you. All this derives from your experience as veterans.”