Even by Green Beret standards, Bennie Adkins has a pretty high stress tolerance. During over 38 hours of direct enemy contact and 48 more hours spent evading North Vietnamese troops, Sergeant First Class Adkins killed over 100 enemy soldiers, received 18 wounds from enemy fire, and was stalked by a tiger. For four days he performed Herculean tasks under incomprehensible stress. How do Green Berets perform at such superhuman levels? Scientific research has determined that Special Forces soldiers produce large amounts neuropeptide Y. This gives them a higher stress tolerance than other humans. Like ‘Midi-chlorians’ without the Dark Side.
The Medal of Honor citation says that Bennie Adkins distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. That is some fine understatement there.
Then a 32-year-old sergeant first class from Opelika, Alabama, Bennie and his team were working with a 400-man South Vietnamese civilian irregular defense group (CIDG) at Camp A Shau. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were so impressed by the team’s efforts that they assembled a regiment-size force and, on March 9, 1966, set out to eliminate the camp and its occupants.
The attack was efficient and professional—beginning with intense mortar fire. Bennie ran through the incoming fire to send out some mortar fire of his own. As intelligence sergeant, he had studied the surrounding terrain and registered his mortars on the likely staging areas for an enemy attack. This is where he received his first wounds in what would prove to be four very long days.
There were wounded in the middle of the compound, so Bennie turned the mortar over to a teammate and dragged them to safety through the constant incoming fire. To add insult to injury, some of this fire came from CIDG, who had changed sides. Bennie even went outside the wire, carrying the wounded men to the airstrip outside the camp for evacuation and to retrieve a resupply bundle dropped off-target.
The next morning at dawn, the North Vietnamese launched their main attack. Bennie shot the mortar until he was out of ammo, then he started shooting bad guys inside the perimeter with his rifle. He was wounded again, but fought his way to the communications bunker. After being ordered to evacuate the camp, he helped destroy classified material and encryption devices. Seeing things weren’t going well for the Americans and their allies, he went to the C in PACE and dug out of the backside of the bunker with some of his team to leave the now-overrun camp.
Headed for the extraction LZ, Bennie was slowed because he was carrying a wounded comrade. They missed the last helicopter. Now in full emergency mode, he and his small group focused on evasion.
Wounded and surrounded by NVA on a little hilltop without extraction was pretty stressful, but wait—there was more. Everything got quiet, and Bennie saw the reflection of feline eyes circling. Attracted by the blood and carnage, a tiger was stalking them, looking for an easy meal. The NVA soldiers were more afraid of the tiger than a few wounded Green Berets. The NVA backed off, allowing the Green Berets to escape and call in a rescue helicopter.
Five of 16 Americans survived. Of the 410 indigenous civilian irregular defense group soldiers in the camp, only about 122 survived. Men like Bennie Adkins are a rare breed, but they seem to appear in disproportionate numbers among Green Berets. The Army has put a great deal of effort into understanding why such men seek out service in Special Forces and what makes them different. New research has provided some insight into the nature and causes of that difference.
Dr. Andy Morgan of Yale Medical School studies the effects of stress. His biggest challenge was finding a controlled environment where people are exposed to high stress. The Army, as it turns out, had been doing this for years. It reaches the pinnacle at the Resistance Training Lab (RTL) in SERE school at Ft. Bragg.
From day one of Army basic training, they employ a strategy lovingly called ‘stress inoculation.’ Just as an inoculation dose of a virus prepares your immune system for the disease, exposure to stress in training builds confidence and prepares a soldier to deal with the stress of combat.
Army training consists of a series of increasingly frightening and sometimes dangerous activities. If you progress beyond basic and advanced individual training to Ranger School and Special Forces training, you are dealing with complicated and highly dangerous situations. The culmination of stress inoculation is simulation of the worst possible outcome: being captured and interrogated by professionals. This is the mission of the RTL.
The RTL is as realistic as they can make it without executions. There are razor-wire fences, machine-gun-equipped guard towers, concrete cells, and metal cages. There is even a graveyard. Beyond the stage props, former Green Beret Vietnam POW LTC Nick Rowe designed the RTL as a choreographed experience managed by evil-minded professional guards and interrogators whose duty is to disorient student Green Berets and cause them to feel some of the stress of the POW experience.
The RTL does this by employing historical techniques used by our enemies. Scientifically administered beatings, sleep deprivation, loud annoying music, and hunger combine to test their guests.
Dr. Morgan found a wealth of data. During RTL interrogations, students experienced heart rates of more than 170 beats per minute for over half an hour without any physical activity. Their stress hormones reached dangerous levels, which can result in a shutdown of the immune system and can produce a catabolic state. This is responsible for the average weight loss of 22 pounds in the three days of RTL.
Green Berets aren’t the only guys who go to SERE. There are pilots and other soldiers the Army feels are at risk of capture. Dr. Morgan noticed that both groups started the RTL the same, but once the stress began, significant differences were revealed.
Upon careful examination, Dr. Morgan found one important reason that Green Berets handle stress better: It was determined that Green Berets produced huge amounts of neuropeptide Y (NPY) comparied to other soldiers. Tested again 24 hours after completing the RTL, Green Berets returned to their original levels of NPY while other soldiers were significantly below normal.
The NPY improved Green Berets’ performance under interrogation: They stayed more focused and engaged, and were able to bounce back faster afterward. In war, as in life, this confers significant advantage.
You may not have high levels of NPY, but there are many techniques for stress reduction. If you can master your stress response, you can perform at higher levels in spite of stress. Be like Bennie; don’t stress.
(Featured image courtesy of theirturn.net)