“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain
We all have fears, and for some people, those fears can be debilitating. For a Special Operations trooper, giving into fear can be a killer or at the very least a quick trip out of the training pipeline. Some of the many common fears are those of the dark, of heights, the water, claustrophobia, fear of failure and many others, including some combinations.
Unchecked, fears will have more to do with a Special Operations candidate’s failure than anything else. For the untrained and unprepared person, when confronted with a dangerous, difficult scenario, especially with one dealing with a situation that a person has a natural fear of, panic can set in.
Panic is that fight-or-flight scenario where the feeling of fear is so strong that it will cause someone to lose the ability to think clearly and logically. In a training scenario for an SOF trooper, it is the kiss of death. We always hear that Special Operations guys, like Green Berets and SEALS are “fearless.” Is this true? Not even close. Everyone has fear, SOF troops are the best in the world at working thru theirs. So how is it that SOF troops can capture the old “V” in Survival Training… Vanquish Fear and Panic?
A common thread you’ll find in all Special Operations Forces is that they’ll act coolly under pressure. Cooler heads make smart decisions and this will invariably lead to successful conclusions. So what’s the secret to keeping your head about you when everyone else is losing theirs? We’ll break it down into a few steps and for those Special Operations candidates, take note. These will help you in the pipeline.
Training, Repetition, Repetition, Repetition:
One common thread that we always talk about in our pieces here is being properly trained and prepared. Physically, that means getting your body in the best possible shape you can be in prior to attending the Selection course.
But a very common issue we saw at the SFAS (Special Forces Assessment and Selection) courses as instructors were candidates quitting. Why? Some were simply overwhelmed and were physically not prepared, for which there is no excuse. But for others, the situation was also a failure to prepare, yet not physically, but mentally.
No matter how good of shape you’re in, when you get to Selection, you’re going to get smoked. It is the nature of the course where the physicality, the lack of sleep and food and the added stress take a toll. That is what the courses are designed to do. But while some candidates do well others fail. Why? The failures never pushed their own envelope.
When training for Selection, you’ll always see something on our pieces where we stress to candidates to go beyond the standard. You have to get out of your comfort zones and constantly go into areas where you are dealing with unknown or fearful type situations. Don’t like the dark? Practice all of your land navigation during hours of darkness. Not comfortable in the water? Spend more and more time in there until that fear is no longer an area of concern but one where the uncertainty is easily conquered. You’ll hear all Special Operators refer to it as “Embracing the Suck.”
The only way to accomplish that is practice, practice and then practice some more. We have read and heard first-hand accounts of how the SEALs took down Osama bin Laden. Does anyone think that they went into Abbottabad cold turkey? Of course not. They rehearsed that particular operation time and again so that when the stress of doing it for real was upon them, they knew exactly how they were going to operate and mentally, they were completely ready. That’s why when unknown circumstances occur and they always will, the men were ready and adapted as if it were second nature because it was.
Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.
Control the Situation and Your Fear:
One of the benefits of repetitive, stressful training is the ability for the Special Operations troops to feel that “We got this covered….we’ve done this 100x in training.” This goes hand-in-hand with the first key. By continuing to stretch the envelope and leaving one’s comfort zone, the SOF trooper will control it and himself, which allows a clearer head and the ability to make sound decisions.
Another way to help yourself is to regulate and slow your breathing. When you’re feeling stressed, a long deep inhale and then a long deep exhale will do wonders for taking a man out of his own self-induced stress and put him back in the correct state of mind.
When you can control your breathing and operate out of your comfort zone, it is only a matter of time before you will no longer have an intense fear of that certain situation. At the very least, it will no longer fill you with dread and may be an area that you’ll be able to handle with ease on your own.
Inject Some Humor:
Remember when everyone told you to be the “gray man” and blend into the background? Well, this is one of those times when it pays if your class has a guy with personality and he uses a bit of humor injected every day. It will work wonders at cutting stress and making things seem just a little bit easier.
When I went thru SERE school, our patrol had a big kid from the Ranger Bn, a corporal who was hilarious. Every day, no matter what we were doing he would come up with a wisecrack that would have everyone on the patrol cracking up. He had a sarcastic way of saying “This is sooo hooah” that would make you laugh out loud every time. During our E&E, which started on Thanksgiving night, it was cold, about 38 degrees and pouring rain. Before long we soaked to the bone and shivering even moving thru the mountains in the forest.
We stopped for a map check under a tree and the entire group bunched together like sardines while one of the pilots from 160th Aviation was under a poncho with a red lens flashlight. One of the other SF guys said, “Hey Corporal, how hooah is this $hit now?” He didn’t miss a beat, “this is sooo hooah, I have a boner the size of frickin’ New Jersey right now,” he said. We couldn’t move for five minutes while everyone put their hats over their face and laughed uncontrollably. I guess you kinda had to have been there.
Earl Fillmore was another guy exactly like that. Earl was the first of Delta boys who died in Somalia during “Black Hawk Down” back in 1993. But before that, we were on an A-Team in 7th SFG together and Earl and I went to Language School together. Every day Earl could crack you up with just a look and whatever you were doing, he’d make it go by much easier. He’s still missed today.
Don’t Listen to the “Little Voice” on Your Shoulder:
Do any of you remember the film “Animal House” with John Belushi? One of the guys in his frat gets a girl drunk and she passes out. Trying to decide what to do, he gets these two little voices on either shoulder trying to tell him what he should do. Well, you’ll get the same little guy on your shoulder when things get tough. And he is going to try to convince you to quit or that the event is too hard and is going to put some lame excuse in your head.
Ignore him, he’s a pussy. That little voice will tell you every time that this event is too hard. Zap him right out of your head. Use your conscious mind to shout him down and pay no attention to him. With a little bit of training, it will work every time.
Of course, if we could, we would all have that little voice on our shoulder be like the Sergeant Major, “Sandy” in the Wild Geese:
We’ve all had our share of uncomfortable situations. Mine, to my wife’s great amusement, is that to this day I still don’t like standing on a step ladder on the side of the house. She finds it hilarious that someone who climbed mountains, jumped out of airplanes countless times and loved to hang out of the plane as a jumpmaster is uncomfortable on a tiny ladder. It is what it is. That SGM needs to climb the ladder with me the next time the house needs painting…
Photo Courtesy DOD, Video – YouTube