There’s a critical moment right after someone gets punched, where their brain struggles between fight or flight. I know; I teach the Modern Army Combatives Program (MAC-P) to new Soldiers.
Part of MACP involves the “clinch drill” where the soldier struggles to get hold of and clinch or wrap his arms around someone who is punching him. Hard. The catch is, he can’t punch back. The first time a soldier gets hit, that critical moment flashes just behind his eyes. The guys who take too long to grapple with that fight or flight reaction get hit again. Sometimes they get hit again and again and again. Sometimes it’s because they’ve never had to make that decision. Sometimes because they’ve had better success before, running, than pushing forward. But we tell them there is no success in moving backwards, and even less in standing still.
According to the Huffington Post, almost once an hour, a veteran is taking his own life. You can argue it’s a choice, or you can argue that eventually the cumulative damage done from years and years of combat takes it’s toll. You can argue that we as Soldiers created this alter ego for when we’re deployed to a combat zone, some persona we put on that we try our best to put away when we’re back in civilization. The problem lies in what then-Lieutenant Ronald Spiers told PVT Blythe in “Band of Brothers”: “the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function. Without mercy. Without compassion. Without remorse. All war depends upon it.” That dead man we had to become is Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll we seek to be when we’re home. Keeping the two of them apart without the occasional deployment to let the Dead Man be sated can get…let’s say difficult.
The Army has more “Resiliency Training” and “Suicide Awareness Training” than I can shake a stick at. It’s a mix of personality exams, introspection, and learning about stuff like “Thinking Traps and How to Avoid Them.” I’m not discounting the value of the training, except to say that no one joined the military because they felt they didn’t have enough classroom and lecture time in his or her lives. However, a lot of people joined the Army, in part, because they wanted to get into a fight, and see how they’d do. And they like being around people who want to find out the same thing. Look to your right or your left, and who would you rather see; someone who would fight, or someone who would run? That’s not Army life, that’s life in general. Funny that we all have fight or flight hardwired into our DNA, yet little love for someone who does the latter.
Want to learn resilience? Put yourself in a position where you can get punched, but you agree not to punch back. Survive. Don’t quit. Attack where the punches are coming from. It’s visceral, and it’s mental, and that makes it something metaphysical, and beautiful. Also, it’s going to hurt. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth anything. Thucydides said something about the severest school, and Tyler Durden asked about dying without any scars.
One thing I’ve learned from getting hit: there’s no success in running, even if I run to a place where life’s punches cannot find me. But to survive, to persevere; to show others that we can have a plan, get punched in the mouth, and still make our ideas successful and our dreams a reality? That is the greatest resilience and victory any soldier, or human being, can ask for.
Frank St. Martin was born in Cedar Rapids and raised in Fairfax, Iowa. He joined the Army as a tanker in 1999, and has been thankful for the opportunity to travel to such exotic locations as Germany, Iraq, repeated trips to Korea, and divorce court in Fort Knox and Fort Lewis. He currently resides in Junction City, Kansas, where he encourages the local microbrewery scene, and trains for power-lifting competitions, which he compares to "easy farmwork."