6 Ways to Build Resilience from the Veteran Who Helped Create the Army’s Resilience Curriculum

6 Ways to Build Resilience from the Veteran Who Helped Create the Army’s Resilience Curriculum

U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jennifer Ballou was stationed in Italy when a friend asked her about setting her up with a guy named Eddie—Army Specialist Eddie Loredo. Ballou resisted at first. I don’t want to be set up with anybody, she thought. 

She relented and quickly discovered Loredo was like no one she had ever met. “From the moment he opened his eyes until the moment he went to sleep—I don’t understand it—but he was happy to be alive,” Ballou says. “His smile lit up a room. He had a zest for life that I’ve never seen.”

They managed a long-distance relationship that life in the Army requires, and after a few years of that, they married. Even then, work often kept them apart. Ballou was pregnant with their son while Loredo was deployed to Iraq. 

They tried to time Loredo’s two-week leave to the baby’s arrival. Ballou went into labor while he was on the plane home. “They were trying to do everything they could to not let me have the baby,” she says. “This is a movie—he runs in, still in his uniform, just in time to see our son born. And then he left again two weeks later.”

In 2010, they were both sent to Afghanistan; Loredo, by then a staff sergeant, was an infantryman on his fourth deployment and Ballou was on her first and worked to set up dental clinics across the country. 

One day in late June Eddie stepped on an IED—improvised explosive device. Initial reports were that he would lose his leg. Ballou rushed to get to the hospital, but he died while she was on the way, just minutes before his 35th birthday. “It didn’t even cross my mind that he was going to die. He was a fighter. He was so strong. We were going to be fine, he just wasn’t going to have a leg,” she says. 

She escorted his body back to the U.S., the beginning of a long journey. She realized the last day she had spoken to him had been Father’s Day. “Everything changed. Everything that I thought was so important, just no longer was,” she says.

Resilience is a unique trait in that you don’t know you have it, or to what extent, until you desperately need it. Life had knocked her down before, she says, many times, though nothing like this. Still, even those relatively smaller challenges prepared her to a degree. She had two children at the time and was suddenly a single mom and sole provider for them. “I just had to keep it together for them,” she says.

She discovered that the Army had room for improvement when taking care of the families of fallen soldiers. She drew up solutions, ran them up the chain of command and eventually many were adopted.

Meanwhile, Fort Bragg, where she was stationed, was starting a resilience program and she was asked to help stand it up. That led to her studying resilience at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught what she learned at Fort Bragg and later the Pentagon, where she was the senior noncommissioned officer of the program, with a staff of 200 and a budget of $60 million. She assisted in the development of a resilience curriculum that the Army used all over the world.

The convergence of her needs and skills and the Army’s needs is amazing—a person who both needs and has resilience was handpicked to develop courses used to teach it to thousands of soldiers. She showed her resilience at the same time she was learning about it and teaching it.

Ballou eventually rose to the rank of Master Sergeant. She has since left the Army, remarried and had another child, developments made possible only by years of resilience-fueled healing. She lives in Texas now, where she is prototypical solopreneur: writer, life coach, yoga instructor, CrossFit trainer, speaker. She offers “a toolbox of strategies for how to be more resilient and joyful in the face of change, no matter how challenging.”

The first tool goes into the box long before anything bad happens, and that’s to create a healthy and balanced lifestyle—eat well, get plenty of rest, exercise, etc. “If and when something challenging happens, you’re already a few steps ahead,” she says. “You can, for lack of better words, afford to take a few steps back and more than likely not crumble.”

When those challenging things happen—when not if—Ballou offers the following tips on resilience.

Relationships matter. 

“In the immediate aftermath I found that the connections that I had, the close relationships I had, were vital because I never felt alone,” she says. “Some people feel so alone.” In the midst of a difficult situation, these relationships can suffer. “Don’t allow the distractors in our lives to take away from the people that matter most,” she says.

Ask for help. 

This is a sign of strength. We think we’re bothering people, or worse, showing weakness when we ask for help. Neither of those are true, she says.

Practice gratitude and optimism. 

She sees these as interchangeable. In studying at Penn, she learned the phrase “hunt the good stuff.” One way to do that is to make a daily habit of writing down three good things that happened. “We know that if you practice this simple skill every day, it will build your optimism, and optimism is the engine of resilience,” she says. 

Allow yourself to feel the bad.

 This goes hand in hand with practicing gratitude and optimism. Neither one denies the other, and neither can exist without the other. Blocking yourself from the bad also blocks you from the good. 

Ballou experienced this one first hand and learned about it more from Brene Brown, a renowned author. “You’re never going to be able to experience happiness and/or joy the way that you might want to if you’re not allowing yourself to feel the crap,” Ballou says. 

It took a long time for her to accept this. “It wasn’t day one, week one, or year one that I really dug in and allowed myself to grieve Eddie dying. It was years later, but once I did and I got the help that I needed, that’s when things started to shift.”

Focus on things you can control. 

She learned this much later, after losing a job after she left the Army. She found herself “wasting a ton of time and energy ruminating about these things that you have no control over.” 

Do what makes you happy. 

The hobbies that make you feel good—whether it’s exercise, meditating, walking, reading or something else—find time for them every day. “I love CrossFit. I love yoga,” says Ballou. “Sometimes I just don’t want to do it, but I make myself do it because I know I’m going to feel better when I’m done.”

Post-script: CrossFit has a series of workouts known as Hero WODs (workout of the day) created in honor of fallen first responders and military members. One of them is named for Loredo. The Loredo WOD, which Ballou helped develop, is six sets, for time, of 24 squats, 24 pushups, 24 walking lunges and a 400-meter run.

I have done this workout often in the last 18 months because it helps build my resilience, physically and mentally. Curious about its namesake, I looked up the details on Loredo and discovered Ballou’s expertise on resilience. I reached out to her to ask if she would let me interview her for the story above. 

I told her the Loredo workout has been important in my life, and she said the structure of it honors Eddie in several ways. The six sets and 24 count represent the month (June) and date (24) of his death. The moves in it—simple body-weight exercises—represent how he liked to exercise. He favored routines he could do outside; he didn’t need a fancy gym or equipment. He was 5-foot-6, barrel chested and a great runner.

Ballou said as the 10th anniversary of his death approached last year, she had hoped to be able to travel to as many CrossFit gyms as possible to do the Loredo workout with as many people as possible. The pandemic made that impossible. She asked me to encourage as many people as possible to do the workout this year on or around June 24 and post on social media about it using the hashtag #RememberLoredo.

I plan to do it and have rallied hundreds of men in my workout group to join me. If you do it, write about it in the comments.

Photo by STILL Photography – Central Texas Portrait Photographer

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis. He writes about sports, travel, adventure and professional development. Email him at [email protected]

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