During a routine military training exercise some years ago, two skydivers collided about 1,000 feet above the desert floor east of San Diego. One of the parachutes shuddered, and held. The other one collapsed, sending a Navy commando named Mark Divine into free fall.
In the next few moments, which promised to be his last, Divine’s training took over. He worked his parachute lines up and down, to try to catch air. About 50 feet from the ground, the chute swept open, pitching its cargo hard into the dust and scrub, unharmed. “I don’t remember ever thinking about dying,” recalls Divine. “Even afterward.”
At a time when the country is mobilizing for war and engaged in counter-terrorist operations around the world, psychiatrists and military professionals are determined to learn how some people can handle heart-stopping danger and walk away without any apparent psychological harm. The answers are crucial not only for recruiting elite fighters but for preventing the kind of mental breakdowns that can follow intense combat.
Academic psychiatrists have been doing sophisticated blood analysis and mental testing on groups of special forces, including Navy SEAL (Sea, Air Land) teams and Army Green Berets, as they participate in classified training courses. The research reveals how training and upbringing -- including our response to trauma and abuse -- can produce enormous mental resilience. It also affirms that most commandos are neither unfeeling warriors nor the Rambo-type loners many people imagine.
“We think of these guys as people who just don’t feel stress at the same level as everyone else,” said Dr. Andy Morgan of Yale University, who is directing the research. “But that is not the case. In some ways they are even more sensitive than the rest of us.”
High dropout rate
The military has been profiling its most elite soldiers since at least World War II, to better predict who’s got the right stuff. After all, about 60% to 80% of special forces candidates drop out. On standard tests, there are few surprises. Commandos tend to score above average on general intelligence, high on measures of determination and earnestness, lower on neuroticism and anxiety, studies show. They also score high on tests of sociability, the ability to work well in teams. “That’s fairly crucial: They have to play well with others,” said Lt. Col. Morgan Banks, command psychologist for U.S. Army special forces at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Banks said cultural stereotypes can be misleading: “We do get plenty of conservative country kids who grew up hunting, thinking for themselves; but we also get Democrats from Boston.”
Bodybuilders and self-styled supermen tend not to make the cut. David McDonald, a University of Missouri psychologist who followed a group of 336 SEAL candidates through training in 1990, said that “the cockiest guys at the beginning of training weren’t there at the end.... Those who graduated tended to be very serious, intense, hunker-down types.”
That intensity can make the return to civilian life difficult, some commandos say. There’s a restless craving for risk and physical challenge that a life of backyards and barbecues can’t always satisfy. But when the heat’s on, these qualities stand out.
In several experiments over the last two years, Morgan and colleagues at Yale and in the Army have analyzed blood and saliva samples from about 250 special forces and regular infantrymen as they participated in survival training courses. The training, required of all U.S. combat troops, is meant to evoke fear of capture, interrogation and torture. In exercises based on prisoner-of-war experiences, the young men are “captured,” bound and hooded, deprived of sleep, then bullied to give up precious information. The men are not physically harmed. But they don’t know how or when the test will end, and one slip-up can derail a career.
In the special operations personnel, the exercise causes the stress hormone cortisol to spike about as much as in a patient undergoing heart surgery -- about 20 times the normal rate. Contrary to expectation, their stress response is actually higher than in the regular infantry. But at the same time, these elite fighters have highly elevated levels of another hormone, called neuropeptide-Y, or NPY, which is thought to be a natural relaxant. Produced in the brain and intestine, this substance plays a role in appetite control, heart function and sleep quality, among other things.
A hormonal difference
In animal studies, injections of the hormone significantly reduce anxious behavior, according to Bob Kesterson, a hormone researcher at Vanderbilt University. Although similar experiments have not yet been done on humans, the Yale group believes this internal relaxant helps keep commandos’ minds alert and supple when stress levels are going off the chart. “In most people, the system may simply shut down after cortisol levels get to a certain point, and they kind of lose it,” said Morgan.
A day after interrogation, infantrymen still aren’t entirely themselves. Their stress hormones are slightly elevated, their NPY readings low. The special forces fighters, by contrast, are rested and ready. “Bottom line, these are guys whose bodies remain challenged and engaged when the stress is there, but when it’s gone they bounce right back,” Morgan said. “They move on.”
In part, this difference reflects how the special ops forces are trained. The physical demands of commando training are notoriously difficult. There are hours of jogging in boots, with a full pack. Naked swims in winter waves. No sleep for days on end. Among many other challenges, for example, Green Beret candidates are dropped into a rugged wilderness in the dead of night, alone, with little more than the clothes on their backs. They must find their way to fixed points miles away, under time pressure.
All SEALs go through some variation of a scuba diving test, in which trainees are attacked, their air hoses yanked out and tied in knots, their masks ripped off. The men must recover their equipment, untangle their hoses and restore airflow, all without surfacing for a breath. Those who succeed are attacked again. “You don’t really know when it’s going to end,” said Chris Berman, 46, a former SEAL and reservist who now runs fitness camps and team-building seminars for corporate clients.
By exploiting these unknowns, military instructors add a strong, if not explicit, psychological component to the selection process. One of the most common ruses is to inform a man who has nearly collapsed across a finish line that he’s not done yet, or he has failed.
Berman remembers an officer telling him and the handful of other desperately exhausted men who’d survived SEAL “hell week” that they’d flunked out -- but would have the chance to go through it all again, if they chose. “I looked down at my hands, which were swollen and covered in sores, literally covered, and I thought: electrical tape,” said Berman. “That would substitute for the skin I no longer had.” Almost all of the men wept openly. None quit. That’s when the officer broke into a smile and told them they’d passed.
In his book “Inside Delta Force” (Delacorte, 2002), about the Army’s secret counter-terrorism unit, founding member Eric Haney describes how the training measures soldiers’ minds at precisely that point when their bodies are shutting down. “The whole program is geared to find people who think, and think well, in a firefight,” said Haney. “Bullets are flying, maybe you’re wounded, and you have to have people in your unit thinking straight. You depend on them.”
In studies of emergency room doctors, musicians, teachers and nurses, researchers have shown that high-stress training exercises can significantly reduce anxiety and improve performance in real-life situations. The same principle holds in special forces training; the added element of brutality screens out everyone but those who will not give up, no matter the odds and the pain.
“When I committed, mentally, to become a SEAL, I had no doubts,” said Divine, 39, the commando who survived the midair collision, now an entrepreneur who runs NavySEALs.com, an online community of special ops forces. “They would have had to kill me to get me to quit.”
In short, although training can develop a person’s determination, usually there’s some of it there to start with. Like temperament, our physical responses to stress are partly inherited. But psychiatrists believe that a large part of how we handle intense stress has to do with how we grow up.
To better understand this relationship, the Yale psychiatrists had about 150 soldiers fill out questionnaires about childhood trauma. The young men indicated whether they had been mugged, been abused, suffered a serious illness, or otherwise been put at risk, and if so, whether the incident caused “fear for life, horror, helplessness.”
Among regular soldiers, men who reported fearing for their lives as children were more likely to be upset by survival tests during training.
Yet the situation was reversed in the special forces: Those who’d grown up amid serious threats were more resilient. “One possibility is that we all have these narratives, in which we’re in essence telling ourselves our life story,” said Morgan. “In one kind of narrative, people are the victim of some abuse, and very sensitive to any subsequent threat. In another, we’re abused, but feel the tougher for it. Like, ‘I survived this, I can survive anything.’ ”
In the case of Divine and Berman, the years of active duty only confirmed the thought. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, like many former commandos, the two enlisted in the reserves. They have resumed SEAL team training.