(NaturalNews) Through a dozen years of war, the U.S. military's operational tempo (OPTEMPO) has taken a horrendous toll on both equipment and personnel, with the Marine Corps, arguably taking the brunt of the combat. As the Pentagon's smallest force, Marine units deployed frequently to Iraq and continue to deploy too often to Afghanistan.
Equipment can be replaced but the Corps' most valuable asset - its personnel - is not so easily replenished. So it comes as no surprise that senior Marine brass would be interested in finding ways to relieve the stress of repeated combat deployments.
One new technique the Corps recently introduced to help soldiers deal with the pressures of constant exposure to combat conditions wasn't necessarily received well at first among the hardened rank-and-file.
But as more Marines give meditation a try, more of them are beginning to see its value.
'I felt more relaxed'
In addition to grueling combat exercises and physical training, Marines at Camp Pendleton were given instruction in meditation techniques beginning late last year as they were training to deploy to Afghanistan.
"A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time," Staff Sgt. Nathan Hampton told the Washington Times. "Why are we sitting around a classroom doing their weird meditative stuff?"
"But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn't tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit," Hampton said.
Beginning next year, the paper said, the Corps will incorporate Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training - given the military acronym of "M-Fit" - into infantry training at Pendleton. The focus of it is to teach service members about the secular meditative practice of mindfulness as a way to boost their emotional health and bolster mental performance under the strain of war.
The program, designed by Elizabeth Stanley, a former U.S. Army captain and current professor at Georgetown University, "draws on a growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation," the Times reported.
The origins of M-Fit can be traced to a small group of Marine reservists training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for a deployment to Iraq some four years ago. Then, an M-Fit pilot program was introduced, with the Marines participating in an eight-week mindfulness course where they meditated an average of 12 minutes per day.
A later study of that group of Marines that was published in the research journal Emotions found that they were sleeping better, had improved athletic performance and got higher scores on emotional and cognitive evaluations that fellow Marines who didn't take part in the program, "which centers on training the mind to focus on the current moment and to be aware of one's physical state," said the paper.
In addition to the Marine Corps, the Army has also since commissioned studies of larger groups of troops who are getting variants of the M-Fit training. The results of these additional studies are currently under scientific review and will most likely be published over the next few months.
Mindfulness is not just a passing fad
"The findings in general reinforce and extend what we saw in the pilot study," Stanley, an associate professor of security studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, told the paper. "These techniques can be very effective in increasing situational awareness on the battlefield, in not having emotions drive behavior, in bolstering performance and resilience in high-stress environments. I've seen effects in my own life."
She is recommending further study, but from her own personal experiences, she believes the military is onto something with M-Fit.
A former military intelligence officer, Stanley served in Korea, Macedonia and Bosnia. Later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she struggled after leaving the military and enrolling in graduate programs at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Medications seemed ineffective at helping her deal with her issues. That led her to research mindfulness, and she "quickly became convinced that the mental and emotional health benefits of meditation could help not only her, but also other service members," the Times reported.