In the Special Forces pipeline, everyone goes to SERE school (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape). One of the most powerful concepts they teach is winning small victories. If you can win even a small victory, you can stay motivated in an impossible situation.
SERE school starts with classroom training on the Code of Conduct, then continues with field training in evasion and survival skills. The finale is a simulated prisoner-of-war camp complete with beatings and interrogations. When you are being interrogated and can’t escape, things can quickly seem hopeless. By seeking out hacks or small victories, you can regain some sense of control. A small victory could be finding extra food, grabbing a few minutes of rest or the big one – successfully deceiving an interrogator.
Throughout all Army training, stress is progressively induced in increasing amounts. Just as an inoculation dose of a virus prepares your immune system for the disease, exposure to adversity in training builds confidence and prepares a soldier to deal with the stress of combat.
Army training consists of a series of increasingly frightening 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 a simulation of the worst possible outcome: being captured and interrogated by professionals.
SERE school trains soldiers to avoid capture, but if caught, to survive and return home with honor. The man who conceived and built SERE school was Nick Rowe.
In July 1963, First Lieutenant James “Nick” Rowe was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group as Executive Officer of Detachment A-23, a 12-man “A-team.” A-23 advised a Civilian Irregular Defense Group camp at Tan Phu in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam.
Early on the morning of October 29, 1963, Captain Rocky Versace, First Lieutenant Nick Rowe, and Sergeant Daniel Pitzer left the A camp with one of their Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) companies. The Viet Cong (VC) were operating from the near by village of Le Coeur and Captain Versace decided to get rid of them.
When they arrived in Le Coeur, the VC was gone and the chase was on. Following signs, they tracked the VC. The good news was that they found the VC force at about 10am.
The bad news: they found the VC by walking into an ambush. They fought all day and called for reinforcements. By nightfall, Versace, Pitzer and Rowe were all prisoners of war.
In the sixty-two months which followed, Nick Rowe lived in the U Minh Forest, known as the “Forest of Darkness,” in southern Vietnam, He spent most of that time isolated from other prisoners, confined to a wooden cage three feet by four feet by six feet. In filthy conditions with poor food, he suffered dysentery, beri-beri and fungal diseases.
To make matters worse, he was tortured and interrogated. He woke up every morning with the realization that he might be executed, or spend the rest of his life in that cage, never again seeing home or his family. This was a guy who really needed a small victory.
Nick Rowe was damaged but never defeated. His first concern was protecting the mass of valuable information in his head. As an intelligence officer and the team executive officer, he knew details of his camp defenses and surrounding units.
Shortly after capture, the interrogations began. Conducted by English speaking professionals under conditions of chronic poor health, sleep deprivation and semi-starvation, Rowe was vulnerable.
Nick Rowe was a strong Christian, a real Green Beret and a West Point-trained engineer. Left with only the resources of his knowledge and imagination, he began to fight back.
Rowe invented a cover story that he studied engineering in a small liberal college. He had been drafted into the Army as an engineering officer who had been assigned to do civil affairs projects and build schools. He claimed ignorance of local military operations.
The Viet Cong asked the same questions over and over, They used torture to try to break him and catch him in a lie. They presented him with basic engineering problems. Imagine trying to do that in your head while living in a cage, eating garbage and being tortured. Fortunately, engineering courses were mandatory at West Point, and he spent his four years there living in a cramped dorm room running on little sleep with upperclassmen asking him to recite memorized knowledge at random intervals. Rowe was able to fool his captors.
Rowe’s cover story held up until a group of anti-war protesters visited to North Vietnam. The protesters asked to see some American POW’s so they could tell the American people of the lenient and humane treatment given them by the kind and generous North Vietnamese people. Their list included the name James N. Rowe, Army intelligence officer assigned to Special Forces.
Rowe won big and now he was going to pay. His once valuable information at the time of his capture was now stale and worthless. They beat him for hours then and staked him out naked in a swamp. He probably wasn’t smiling, but he won that round.
Rowe eventually escaped with another POW. Things were going great until his injured partner could not go on. They separated, hoping that would confuse their pursuers. Rowe heard the Viet Cong capture his friend. The VC began yelling that unless he surrendered immediately, they would kill the other POW. Rowe could have escaped, but he surrendered to prevent the execution of the other POW.
Rowe continued to resist and won one small victory at a time. He so infuriated his interrogators that they declared him of no value and received permission to execute him in December 1968. On Dec. 31, 1968, while moving between VC camps in the U Minh forest, the guards were distracted by a formation of American helicopters. Rowe knocked down his guards and ran into a clearing, where he signaled the helicopters. Rowe was wearing black pajamas, and the door gunner almost shot him until he saw the beard. Charlie couldn’t grow beards.
As a POW, Rowe kept a secret diary written in German, Spanish, Chinese, and his own special code in order to deceive his captors. He wrote an excellent book about his experiences, called Five Years to Freedom.
In 1987, Rowe was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) as an adviser to the Philippine military in the midst of a bitter guerrilla war.
In February, 1989, Colonel Rowe learned that the communists were planning to assassinate a high-profile figure. He figured he was second or third on the list.
Rowe was aware of the threat and varied his routes and schedule. But due to political considerations, he was prohibited from travelling armed.
On April 21, 1989, Nick was attacked by the communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) while returning to the US Embassy in an armored limousine. The vehicle’s air conditioning had broken down, perhaps sabotaged. The driver had opened the vent window to allow fresh air in. The rounds which killed Nick Rowe came in through the vent window.
A legendary Green Beret, Rowe had so dominated his communist captors that years later they still sought revenge. It was a hollow victory. Rowe live on in the generations of Green Berets he trained, one small victory at a time.
In daily life, we can feel trapped. We may get married, caught in traffic, stuck in a dead end job with a bad boss or constrained by missed opportunities. You may not have the field position to make a touchdown every play, but if you can move forward just a few yards, you may get the first down that changes everything.
More importantly, by seeking small victories, you can keep a positive attitude and maintain forward momentum. It is said that football is a game of inches, and so too is life. If you can change your attitude, you can change your life.
You may have never heard of Morten Andersen. His nickname was “The Great Dane.” He isn’t a Green Beret, but he is the all-time leading career scorer in NFL history with 2,544 points. Anderson never made a touchdown, but in tough games, he made one point or three points at a time. Small victories. The top 25 NFL career scoring leaders are all placekickers.
Be like Nick. Green Berets know that “Small Victories” can sustain you through incomprehensible difficulties. Look for ways to win. You will be astounded and amazed at what you will find.
(Featured Image Courtesy: B-2 pilot in SERE training. SOFREP)
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