Decorating the Palace

Source: Iran Chamber Society

Remember those terrible ISIS videos showing the destruction of idols and museum pieces? I remember feeling sick to my stomach watching them. It’s very strange how powerful that imagery can be – and the anger that it can stoke.

Time has passed, and we’re at a place now where researchers and scholars are beginning to publish on those events.

I recently listened to a good interview with professor and researcher Aaron Tugendhaft on the New Books Network. The topic was his book titled The Idols of ISIS which discusses those events.

The striking point he makes during the interview is that it is not simply the destruction of the idols that was important, but replacing those idols with the image – the video – of those idols being destroyed. This is such an important and often overlooked concept. Someone is always holding the camera, and there is a purpose.

The book sounds fascinating, and discusses Saddam’s appropriation of Assyrian iconology to support his political ambitions (a subject I’m endlessly interested in). I couldn’t help but think of the video of Saddam’s statue being taken down in 2003 (the statue is an idol). Taking down the statue was important, but more important was replacing that with the image of it being taken down. We think we are watching a video of something happening – but it is in fac the video itself that is the new thing.

I know this gets kind of meta – but this is an important and easily missed phenomena.

There’s also a portion of the interview that discusses how the ISIS aesthetic was inspired by imagery in video games – Call of Duty is mentioned.

There is an endless deluge of scholars who look at ISIS – and for good reason. It is refreshing to get a take from someone outside of “terrorism” studies.

Lastly, during the interview, the below political cartoon was mentioned. It’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is still infuriating on so many levels.

PATRICK CHAPPATTEMosul Museum Devastated, 2015. Published in Le Temps, Switzerland, February 28, 2015. © Chappatte 2015.

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Starting social media over feels like New Game+ mode

Had this thought the other day as I continue to slog through rebuilding. When I pulled the plug in 2016, I was in a pretty good place. My Twitter/Facebook accounts had thousands of followers and just about every blog post got attention. Daily traffic to CTG was high. It was something I had built over five years.

And then zap – it’s all gone.

Well the blog is still here and has plenty of followers. And each day I am moving forward towards a goal of rebuilding.

The whole thing feels very similar to what happens when you beat a video game, and then are offered the opportunity to replay the game in “New Game+” mode. New Game+ is where you get to play the whole thing over from the beginnning, but you retain whatever skills, equipement, and experience you earned in the first playthrough. The experience is also easier because you know the rules of the game and have gotten pretty good. I know how to write, I know the world map, and I know which oracles to visit. It’s definitely starting over with an advantage. The goal of New Game+ mode is to explore the things you missed while getting another opportunity to enjoy the game.

But boy, it’s still a slog.

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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“Tell them I held the line…”

Originally published in 2012.

Tell them I held the line…

I just finished Mass Effect 2, having rolled into it right after playing Mass Effect. 

I know I could have looked online to see how to make it through the last mission with everyone, but I enjoy playing the game blind – it’s more realistic that way.

Everything was going well on the Collector Base, and when I had to choose a leader for the diversion team, I thought Mordin would be a good choice given his background with the Salarian Special Tasks Group.

Well, that didn’t work out, and Mordin didn’t make it.

The rest of the squad made it, but only Dr. Chakwas from the Normandy.

I’m looking forward to finishing the fight, sometime before Christmas.

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Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

This event, entirely fictional, is inspired by chapter 33 of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, Lawrence lays out his vision for how the Arab Revolt  might defeat the Turks in Arabia. In this, I lay out the counter-insurgent’s dream, a fantastical imagination of the introduction of the Reaper, a la Mass Effect fame, as the ultimate weapon in counter insurgency.

About four weeks I spent lounging in that stuffy barracks, eating – no, gorging – on what they allowed, my body soaking up the calories, exhausted from weeks of neglect. As usual, in such circumstances, my mind began to spin and process, finally turning towards that perpetual thing, war, but more accurately, insurgency. Till now, our moves and methods were built upon our mistakes and their remedies, solidified in doctrine and then presented as the final antidote, tried and deemed successful, though it was not. So, in this forced mental solitude, I began to look towards those things I knew of the subject from study and experience, as well as my many digital travels. In this caffeine-free environment, my brain shrunk and made the world around me a haze, in which I pondered the subject at hand.

I am as well read as any on the subject. I have read Petraeus, McChrystal, Kilcullen and Nagl. I follow @abumuqawama and the War Kids. I’ve read the ideas and actually did them, seeing their effects, better now with the luxury of time, distance, and results, or lack thereof.  All this has resulted in me and my peers an almost unquestioning acceptance of the way – drink tea, be nice, be patient.

To win, it is argued, the key lay in the population. Win them, their hearts and minds, and you shall know victory. It had become an obsession of ours. Learn the language, study the culture, be persistent and kind and absorb casualties if needed but by all costs, win the population. Then, and only then could one expect to find victory. Now that l was in this broken, recovering state, it became unclear to me if this goal was worthy and just. What again, did we want this for and why were we doing so much to achieve it?

The barracks ebbed and flowed with the chow hours. Breakfast followed by post-breakfast naps, then lunch and then more napping. Only come dinner did the camp come alive. Debate mixed with the agonizing stories of recent failure. While they gossiped, I lay in my bed, lower back aching from too much rest – the king’s ailment – and thought more of our aim in this war. Win the population. Only we showed no prospect of winning anybody’s population.

I flopped over on my bunk, relieving the pain in my lower back temporarily and closed my ears to the nonsense around me. What if winning the population was not the key? Maybe the goal was in fact, the destruction, or at least the permanent defeat of the enemy, that vapour, blowing where it listed. Population be damned.

A trio of soldiers laughed and debated the merits of wholesale annihilation vice the softer approach. I listened in as one made his point, struggling to convince the others of the foolishness of such a barbaric tactic. They would come to no conclusion.

This unending insurgency, this vapour, how to defeat it? The tools provided, we knew not, with any certainty, if they worked. A confluence of events in that vilified theater led to a sort of victory, while those same events attempted to be replicated in the virtuous theater, are at this time indecisive. Perhaps to win the long war, winning the people is the essence and necessity. But what might be done in the interim? Better, a cheaper, yet permanent solution that does not annihilate the insurgents but threatens as much?

They wanted after all, the removal of us from their lands – an understandable goal if ever there was one. To do so they harassed and sniped and bombed and generally caused havoc, not just for us but for the people of whom we have made it our goal to win. As much as we killed them, which wasn’t much enough to secure victory, we could not do so to that end. They fought for their own freedom, or notion of it, and we ours. Killing to killings end would not accomplish these war aims.

Days went by and my gorging increased before slowing to something recognizable. Vigor returned in small doses and I milled about, chatting lightly and raising spirits with riddles and games. My chief concern, as fantasist, lay still with the house of war, it’s tactics, strategy, and psychology, for my personal duty was service, and my service was to all.

The first confusion lay with the idea that this enemy could not be destroyed, or again, defeated. Their base was their idea, and how does one really kill an idea? This, given the proper gathering of intelligence, technology, and imagination might be overcome.

To hold this territory of square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps two hundred thousand square miles, we would need troops there, on the ground. Impossible! Yes, but perhaps, the counterinsurgent would argue, we could partner with the locals, our host nation brothers and sisters who would exponentially increase our numbers. True, I say, but would it yet be enough? And to be there and to win the population? And even then, we know they will not come to fight us with an army of banners, lest it be online, in the info-space. No, they do indeed come as an army, in small numbers, happy to exploit our size and vulnerability, knowing fully we must be careful in our application of violence to win the population. Armies, it was argued, are like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. They, the enemy, they are the vapour. Their kingdom lay in the mind. A regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only where he sat and subjugating only what he could poke his rifle at.

Yes, all this being true, to do the deed as we know it, we would need hundreds of thousands of light infantrymen, with support, to garrison the land. An expensive and altogether unlikely scenario.

Now then, we get to the rub of his whole thing. Let us take the assumption that what we need to win is an immovable Army large enough to poke his rifle at whatever it is he seeks to subjugate. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Instead of drafting the rank and file for the colourless duty on the imperial frontier, why not leverage the incredible advantage in technology that we solely possess and develop and deploy a new concept of counter-insurgent?

Imagine a gigantic spider of steel and electrons, nuclear powered and nearly invulnerable to small arms and explosives. Tall and wide, imposing and always there. Part of its weaponry is its size, imposing, a mobile skyscraper. Rooted into the ground, an immovable army – only it moves! Rapidly it does, descending from the air or creeping along the land, watching all around, threatening to strike. It is ever present and sinister. That is the nature of it, to strike fear into the hearts of men who wish to oppose it. It cannot be defeated, only avoided. And even then, assisted by its junior siblings, the drones, and their network of spies, it captures the vital element of the modern battlefield – information – and quickly processes that into a strike from it’s all seeing eye.

Yes, this might be the irrational tenth, the kingfisher of the pond, the test of generals, for there lay in this no real predecessor except in the minds of children and mad men.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain over all. To engage in ground combat with the insurgent is madness. It provides the enemy with that chance to fight and win against an icon of his hatred. To send the Reaper, is to show that there is no hope. It cannot be defeated. It can be there forever or be there not at all, only to return in an instant.

Some, understandably, might object to the black nature of such a weapon. Is this not more humane than the alternative? Flooding a land with hundreds of thousands of individuals all guided by their own hearts, attempting to stroke a hostile population to neutrality, instead of deploying a dozen Reapers to act as statues of justice?

Battles in Arabia or its cousins were a mistake, since we profited in them not at all. But if we must, honesty may do more for the case of victory than ill-conceived notions of pure intent. Our power is not in patience or numbers, but technology and imagination. Our developments have been lateral, not horizontal. We saddled our trucks and troops with armor and a brief class on “culture” and called them counterinsurgents. Our power is our strength, and a failure of imagination stunted its development and deployment.

Time passed, and my weight restored, somehow more natural than even before. These thoughts solidified and were packaged and stored away.

It seemed to me that our forces are strong but not prepared for the enemy they face. Our enemy is sophisticated only in that it faces us as we are and not as we should be. Our own population is supportive so long as we remain safe, and so enamored by technology are they that the introduction of the Reaper would be the crown achievement and marvel of our time. On its first landing, the absolute folly of opposing it would become apparent, and in that the war would be won.

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Admiral Anderson on military life, intuition, and the calamity of leadership

Originally published in 2013.

I jumped back into Mass Effect today to play the Citadel DLC and was inspired by some of the things in this interview between a journalist and Admiral David Anderson. I’ve pulled out the parts I found the most interesting.

Whoever wrote this is spot on. For all of the military training we have, things often come down to instincts. Thousands of years of warfare there for us to study, to inform our training, but instinct is still the thing that sits there at the unforgiving minute, the last hundred yards.

And isn’t that the truth concerning the terrible burden of leadership? How horrible is it that we ask our military leaders to choose the mission over the men, and to carry that cross for the rest of their lives?

But then, is war not terrible? I love how Admiral Anderson makes that final statement. To me, it is a critique on war, and a warning to avoid it at all costs, because there truly are no winners, just better-off losers.

Journalist: Does the program make the man, or do you think you were born for this?

It is a bit of both I suppose. Every soldier reaches a point in their career, sometimes more than once, when they are asked to give more than they ever thought they could. That moment is the test. I’ve seen men and women almost sure to fail, persevere long past the point of breaking. That experience changes them. Others, with all the gifts and abilities, fail in that moment. Sometimes they pick themselves up and carry on, sometimes, they’re just done.

JournalistDo you trust your intuition? Do you follow your heart or your mind?

No, I suppose if I were to be honest, I do trust my instincts. The problem is… war isn’t orderly. And the enemy is never predictable. Even the most experienced veteran is going to find themselves in situations they haven’t trained for. In those instances – and there is more than I’d like to admit – your instincts are the only thing keeping you alive. That, and the men and women you’re fighting aside.

Journalist: But soldiers are only as good as their leader, isn’t that true?

Yeah, a good leader can make an ‘ok’ squad great. And a bad leader, well, war tends to make examples of them.

Journalist: What makes a good leader then?

Hm… a good leader is someone who values the life of his men over the success of the mission, but understands that sometimes, the cost of failing a mission is higher than the cost of losing those men.

JournalistThat’s a terrible line to have to walk.

Yes it is. But war is a terrible thing.

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The Soldier-Warrior Dynamic in Metal Gear Solid

I’ve recently been replaying the Metal Gear series after completing MGSV:TPP. I’ve always been a Metal Gear fan, but this was the first in the series I’ve completed since Metal Gear Solid on Playstation. I decided I would go back through the series (by order of release) to completey unpack the smart, complicated, and often absurd story.

Over the past two weekends, I finished the original two Metal Gears for MSX and then moved on to Metal Gear Solid. While reading through the SPECIAL files that recap the events of the first two games, I came across this narrative of the final words exchanged between Solid Snake and Big Boss.

IMG_0154

And the surivivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.

Since I’ve been writing a lot about “warriors” lately, this stuck out in my mind as odd. Plus, I had literally just finished Metal Gear 2 and I was fairly certain Big Boss didn’t use the term “warrior,” but instead opted for “soldier.”

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Here’s the conversation referenced:

And the survivor will love out the rest of his days as a soldier.”

Granted, these are both translations from Japanese, and it would be interesting to know what word was in the original script. I don’t even know if there is a distinction between “warrior” and “soldier” in Japanese, so it might be inconsequential.

Still, I think it is interesting to see how even back in 1998, when Metal Gear Solid was released, there seems to be a shift in terminology, where “soldier” gives way to “warrior.” This is before the Army began using “warrior” in any official or widespread way.

There was another part of this conversation that piqued my interest, though. Big Boss, in explaining the raison d’être for both him and Solid Snake, says the following:

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“It” being a place to fight, a place to be “warriors.”

That quote reminded me of this quote by former Special Forces Major(Ret) Jim Gant:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

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Life is Strange: You can’t un-know what you already know

Gone Girl

The last episode of Life is Strange came out last week, and I rushed to finish it so as not to have the ending(s) spoiled by the internet. I didn’t think I’d be so engrossed by the game when I first read about it from eastern Afghanistan, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been so sucked into a game’s story. After each episode – and this one is no different – I suffer from a morose melancholy for a few days. From the moment the credits roll, I stumble through the drudgery of work and life, thinking about what happened and trying to make sense of it all.

I remind myself, on a number of instances, that’s it’s only a game. But that doesn’t really work.

It’s been a great journey. One that led me to think about the way we interact with one another, suicide, and how veterans are portrayed in the media.

I’m not reviewing the game here. I can’t really be objective about it because I loved it so much. There aren’t many games I would describe as beautiful, but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Like a lot of fans of the game, I’m sad that it’s over. As much as I love narrative based, choice-and-consequence games, once I finish them, they kind of lose their magic for me. I can achievement-hunt and explore the world, but I’ve already exhausted my path.

When I played Mass Effect, I played it as I think I would if I were actually Commander Shepard. When presented with choices, I chose what I thought I would choose in that circumstance. It’s for that reason that in my story, Commander Shepard never had a love interest. It’s generally frowned upon to sleep with your subordinates, as it goes.

Once I destroyed the Reapers (the only right choice), I thought about going back and replaying the game and playing as a totally different “character.” I liked the idea of doing it, and I even started, but I think I only lasted about an hour before I grew bored with it. It was hard for me to role-play the game as someone I’m not.

It was the same for Life is Strange. The decisions I made as Max were the decisions I think I would have made if I were walking in her shoes. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about how I can replay the game, to try to experience it some more. I can explore different decisions, or play as a different kind of Max, but that really doesn’t appeal to me.

I know how the story goes, and I can’t un-know what I already know.

Which leads me to the whole point of this post. A friend once described part of the problem with the civilian-miltiary divide as one that stems from the fact that once someone joins the military, they never really get out. Sure, they can separate from service, but instead of becoming a civilian, they are more likely to identify as a veteran, an identity separate from being a civilian. They’ve been militarized, and you don’t really ever become de-militarized.

Once you’re in, even when you get out, you can’t un-know what you already know.

When I finally finished Tactics Ogre last year, I wrote about how even though it felt good to finally beat it, the final playthrough was tainted by the first, some twenty years ago. The way I experienced it the first time was canon – I can’t go back and change things. And even if I do, it never feels quite right.

When a young man or woman chooses to join the military, that doesn’t become undone when they come home. They can never go back to “normal,” whatever that even means. You can’t un-know what you already know.

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Life Is Strange: Learning to make better decisions through gaming

Reflections

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, mostly on very early mornings on the weekends, you know that I’ve been playing Life Is Strange. I learned about the game back when I was in Afghanistan, a time when the prospect of being an 18 year old female hipster in the Pacific Northwest seemed very, very appealing. I caught up with the game and recently finished Episode 4 (The Dark Room) and one Episode remains. The game is beautiful and highly emotional, and I’ve been convincing as many of my friends as possible to play it, mostly to make them as miserable and depressed as me.

I’m currently working on a longer post about one of the game’s seconday characters, David Madsen, who’s a combat veteran. I actually have quite a few posts in the works that will be coming out related to the game, mostly because the game tackles a lot of important issues (suicide, youth, emotions).

In the mean time, I wanted to comment on one of the interesting features of the game, or rather, one of the interesting side effects that I think the game has. I recently wrote about how through playing narrative-based games, like Life Is Strange or even Mass Effect, the game forces the player to grapple with difficult dillemmas, and that these in-game interactions have actually made me think about the way that I engage with real people. Following up on that idea, what I’ve started to really think about is the way that the game allows you to sit back and really think about what decision you are going to make before actually making it, and the inherent training value this has.

I remember when I was playing Mass Effect, there were times that I would get to a critical decision point and actually get up, pour myself some more coffee, and then sit there, face twisted in thought as I contemplated how my decisions might affect the fate of the galaxy.

In Life Is Strange, the stakes are usually smaller, but often feel more personal (and seemingly real). I’ve been playing the game – as I do most non-linear games – the way that feels right for me. That is, I’m making the decisions as I think I would make them. There are times where I feel like the game is pushing me in one direction over another, like in the scene where I choose whether to make fun of Victoria or comfort her. Seeing those options, I knew that comforting her would be the right thing to do, but I also didn’t think I would actually do that in person. Victoria, to this point, has been a total pain and this was my opportunity to get revenge. I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Mass Effect was much more deliberate in this regard. Decisions colored red pushed you towards being a “renegage” whereas decisions colored “blue” pushed you towards being a “paragon.”

The point is, these in-game conversations, and more importantly, the agency the player has over choice, potentially has real value outside of the game.

Months ago I reviewed a game for iOS that works in this regard (Together Strong), using narrative-based interaction to help prepare veterans and their family members to recognize and effectively communicate with veterans or military members who may need help. Although I thought it was good as a training simulation, I wasn’t that interested in “playing” it again because it never really felt like a game. It felt like effective training. I really ought to revisit it.

I think there is real value in this kind of computer based interaction. Game design has advanced to a point where these types of games can be used to help better prepare people – especially veterans – for facing the tough conversations all of us will undoubteldy find ourselves in. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, anger, PTSD – if you’re in the military or around veterans, these are things you are going to see. And as much lip service as we give to making people “aware” of these issues, very little of substance is done in terms of actually arming ourselves with the tools to help someone.

We like to play games. Instead of another class on recognizing signs of suicide, maybe we simulate a conversation with someone who is really struggling in a context that is comfortable for us – games.

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Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel

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Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.

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