Use Fear to Your Advantage, Troops Advised : Combat: A veteran officer tells his young soldiers what to expect and how to cope with it.
It was time at last for some straight talk. Squinting into the desert afternoon sun, the tank commander gathered his troops around him as the possibility of a bloody ground war, and death, loomed.
“I want to talk about fear. You will be afraid. If you’re not afraid, there’s something wrong with you,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Fontenot, a battalion commander in the 1st Infantry Division, the famed unit known as Big Red One from Ft. Riley, Kan., which is expected to play a vital role in any invasion of Kuwait to drive out the Iraqis.
“It’s OK to be frightened,” said Fontenot, who is from Eunice, La. “It’s natural. You’re going to be scared. And fear is not a bad thing. It can be used as an advantage.”
As he spoke, Fontenot stood erect before a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with about 150 infantrymen, engineers and tankers gathered loosely in a semicircle, some sitting on the soft, fine sand while others kneeled or simply stood, shifting their weight from one foot to the other.
“Let me tell you some of the physiological things that occur when you’re afraid--when you’re really afraid,” Fontenot continued. “I’m talking . . . you-believe-you’re-going-to-die afraid. It’s only happened to me a couple of times.”
The soldiers listened raptly as Fontenot recalled the time, during the Vietnam War, when enemy combustible ammunition set on fire the tank he was in. Flames, he recalled, were “licking my toes. . . . We were burning to the . . . damned ground.”
Despite his extreme fright, Fontenot managed to jump out of the tank--only to discover that his driver was still trapped inside. Risking his own life, Fontenot jumped back onto the tank, barely avoiding being run over, to rescue his driver.
“I stepped from the turret, in one step, assessed my situation, stepped to the ground in the second step, realized my driver was still stuck in the tank, stepped in front of the tank in the third step and yanked him clean out of the driver’s hatch,” Fontenot recalled.
“Now, I would not have done that--even at that age, and I was 25 or 26--if I hadn’t been afraid. Gentlemen, I had the strength of 10 men--because I was sorely afraid. So do not be afraid of fear. Rather, understand it, grapple with it and cope with it.”
A cigarette dangling in his left hand and a gas mask strapped to his hips, Fontenot had the soldiers hanging on his every word.
“Physiologically, what fear does to you is, it pumps adrenaline into your system. It does a couple of other things: it drains the capillaries of the extremities of the body--the arms, the legs. And what that does for you is, if you get shot in the arms or legs, you won’t bleed as much.
“You’ll know when you’re afraid, guys,” he continued. “You’ll have this need to urinate. You will taste a metal taste in your mouth like you had maybe a half-dozen nails. No. 10-sized nails. It is going to happen. Understand it. Cope with it. Talk to each other about it. Understand with each other that all of you are afraid. Men don’t like to admit stuff like that. . . . But it’s OK to be afraid.”
But Fontenot cautioned the soldiers not to become paralyzed by fear: “Do not let it dominate your mind. If you become frozen with fear . . . that’s not good. And the best way to get over that, in the presence of the enemy, is to fire one round. As soon as you do that, it’s like a release. It will come to you in a moment--you know what to do.
“I tell you this because I know what’s going on in your mind. It certainly goes on in my mind, and you got to understand that it’s part of the game. Have faith in yourself,” he said, as the troops’ shadows lengthened across the Arabian Peninsula.
It was time to wrap it up.
“I can’t promise you won’t get hurt. I’ll do my . . . damned best not to waste your life. That’s the only thing I can do. Now let me tell you something else. . . . I’m probably going to make mistakes. You probably are, too. The mistakes you make and the mistakes I make are going to cause some of us to be hurt. All you can do is have faith in the guys around you. I have faith in you. I know you’ll do the best you can. Have faith in me to do my best.
“And if we do our best together, everything will be fine. We’re going to beat these guys. But it isn’t going to be free. You know that song you hear, the Army song: ‘It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fair. But once they called, we were there.’ That’s who we are.
“Like I told you before, this is not the Izod, polo-shirt, Wee-juns crowd. Not a whole lot of kids here whose dads are anesthesiologists or justices of the Supreme Court. We’re the poor, white, middle-class and the poor, black kids from the block and Hispanics from the barrio. We’re just as good as the rest, because the honest thing is, that’s who I want to go to war with--people like you. And you guys will do great.”