Navy SEALs mental conditioning


This is a great article, presented here in full, that I first read in Men’s Health magazine a couple years back.

Here’s the link to the article.: http://www.menshealth.com/yoga/living-well/Master_Bravery_Like_a_Navy_SEAL.php

Full article:

The U.S. Navy SEALs are among the most courageous men on earth. Their secret: mental conditioning. Learn their secrets and you, too, can conquer any fear

At precisely 9:21 p.m., the marine sitting beside me at the Baghdad LZ, the helipad inside the Green Zone, stands and strides toward the bomb shelter. His gait is brisk but not panicked. I follow, fumbling with my helmet.
 
A nanosecond earlier, we’d heard the muffled ka-whompf that announced the launch of a Russian-made Katyusha rocket.
 
Overhead, the keening hiss of the projectile intensifies before terminating with a deafening and, to me, terrifying explosion just as we reach the tunnel-like concrete shelter.
 
“Jesus,” somebody says as the scrum of bodies—marines, soldiers, airmen—crushes inside.
Whether from the piled humanity or the rocket’s concussion (doubtful, since I learned later that the shell landed hundreds of yards away), the lenses of my glasses pop from their frames. I grope around the dark dirt floor with the flat of my hand. Someone not far down the row shines a penlight. “Grab that light, will ya?” I say to the marine next to me.
 
He is a broad, blond sergeant named Bill Cullen from the First Battalion of the Fourth Marines. He is 26, from Walton, Kentucky, and wears a tan, fire-resistant, U.S. Marine-issue flight suit. He grabs the flashlight.
 
“Shine it in my face,” I say. He hesitates. I take off my wire frames. “It’s an experiment. Just do it, please.”
 
In the dark of the shelter my face illuminates; a score of eyes turn toward me.
 
“What do you see?” I ask. “What’s it look like? The color.”
 
“Pale,” someone says.
 
There’s a snicker. “Yeah, real white.” More laughter.
 
Sergeant Cullen agrees. “Pretty ashen, I would say.”
 
I take the flashlight and shine it in Cullen’s face. It’s nearly crimson, a much darker shade than the desert tan he’s acquired during his unit’s nearly completed 6-month tour. “What’s this supposed to mean?” he asks.
 
Over the sound of the air-raid siren, I explain: I’m a reporter for Men’s Health, traveling from Baghdad to Fallujah to embed with the Navy SEALs camped outside that central Iraqi city. One of the purposes of my assignment, I say, is to acquire some knowledge of the physiology of fear and stress—in this extreme case, the behavior of men struggling to overcome their innate instinct for self-preservation when other men are trying to kill them. Science stuff in a war zone.
 
Blank stares.
 
“Fight over flight. Running toward the sound of gunfire.”
 
Recognition.
 
I point to my face and explain: This is an example of what’s called vasoconstriction, and I have no control over it. The blood pumps from my heart through my arteries, but as my fear-induced heart rate rises, nonessential blood vessels automatically constrict. The capillaries drain. My brain is signaling my body, “Alert!” and stopping the superfluous blood vessels in my face from dilating. My brain needs to ration the oxygen in my blood to send elsewhere—to protect vital organs or into the muscles of my legs so I can run away.
 
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

“Then how come I’m not white?” Cullen shines the penlight on the face of a fellow marine.
 
“Or him?”
 
Training, I say. Habituation, the military calls it. It’s the difference between my heart rate rising after a workout—something I’m used to, when my vessels dilate and my face reddens—and being terrified during a rocket attack. The more you train, the more tricks you employ, the more you can program your body to adjust.
 
Essentially, you’re bending the body’s software to control its hardware. It works standing over a putt on the 18th green. It works shooting a final-second free throw. It works banging down a door with a bad guy on the other side.
 
There are a few seconds of silence. Someone says, “And you’re headed down to embed with the SEALs?”
 
I nod.
 
Cullen laughs. “You’re going to have plenty of opportunities to compare your white face with their red ones.”
 
I have just interrupted the disquisition of the square-jawed and, yes, ruddy-faced executive officer of SEAL Team 10, the lean and muscular Lieutenant Commander Mike H.
 
“What are you guys doing here anyway,” I ask, noting that there’s not a hell of a lot of water in and around Fallujah to justify the presence of the U.S. military’s waterborne special operators.
 
We’re inside the makeshift (and air-conditioned—it’s 117°F outside in the Anbar desert) Special Operations Task Force command post. Before I blurted out my question, the 36-year-old Mike H. had been delineating which details I could and could not write about in regard to the previous night’s “kinetic”—or lethal—mission, a gunfight with al-Qaeda zealots clad in suicide vests. All six insurgents, eager to die, did so. Mike H. stops, exasperated.
 
“Because the L stands for land,” he says. “SEAL: sea, air, land.” At 6’5” and 230-odd pounds, Mike H. has the build of a classic college tight end. “You’re right, though,” he quickly adds. “With Afghanistan and Iraq, we have been very land-centric over the past couple of years.” He sweeps his left arm, a gesture encompassing the gated and gritty tent-and-trailer SEAL compound tucked away in a hidden corner of Camp Fallujah. “But there’s plenty of water in the showers.”
 
Here, I suppose, is a good a place to explain the restrictions that were placed on me and our photographer, Max Becherer, for this story. SEALs are notoriously elusive with the media. It took a year of lobbying to secure access to the SEAL base in Fallujah, and no other media outlet has been here. During our stay last September, we weren’t so much welcomed as tolerated. Chilly graciousness.
 
The SEALs are a semicovert organization, deployed in countries from Colombia to the Philippines, and all special operators in Iraq and Afghanistan are high-priority targets of insurgents. Because a SEAL scalp is a major enemy coup, you’ll notice that this article contains almost no last names or photographs of faces or other identifying features.
 
The real SEALs are nothing like the Hollywood ones—the “knuckle-dragging Charlie Sheens,” as one officer put it. Established in 1962 by John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Navy SEALs are a separate, elite force charged with clandestine reconnaissance and unconventional warfare. To a man, they are tough and smart.
 
Consider the 27-year-old SEAL lieutenant and Naval Academy graduate I meet in Fallujah whose job it is to work with Sunni sheikhs to build coalitions against al-Qaeda in Iraq. “I’ll explain everything I can about our Anbar outreach operations within the normal parameters of security,” he tells me one afternoon in his tiny workspace. “But the less you know about me personally, well, the better. Please don’t even use my first name.” He then embarks on a half-hour discourse on the history and proclivities of the local Arab tribes, a talk that’s worthy of T.E. Lawrence.

Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

Today’s SEAL is built buff and, per tradition, conditioned to overcome the instinctive Homo sapiens fear of mortal combat. He (there are no female special operators) also scores far higher than average on standard military intelligence tests. He typically holds a bachelor’s and often a master’s degree. It is one thing to be primed to run toward the sound of a gun. It is quite another to be expected—in this era of what’s called asymmetrical warfare—to possess the combined skills of an emergency-room doctor, diplomat, and rodeo cowboy.
 
“When I first came into the community, our operations were far simpler,” says Mike H. “Big boat to little boat, little boat to beach, recon or direct action, back in little boat, reach big boat. Today, our primary weapons systems are our people’s heads. You want to excel in all the physical areas, but the physical is just a prerequisite to be a SEAL. Mental weakness is what actually screens you out.”
 
Mike H. graduated from College of the Holy Cross in 1993, and then completed 2 years of SEAL conditioning, including basic underwater demolition/SEAL training, SEAL qualification training, and various “workups” like jump school and close-quarter combat training. Five years ago, he went back to school (Harvard, no less) and earned his master’s in public policy.
 
“At that point I had been 10 years out of Holy Cross, and I said, ‘My brain’s probably turned to rubber, but let me see if I can re-engage.’ Because I want to sit in that Harvard classroom with the 100 smartest people I can hang with and say, ‘Wow, I can still do multivariate calculus or statistical regression.’ ” (Well, who can’t?) A little incongruously, he shakes the desert sand out of his hair. “Or something like that.”
 
Being, well, smart, Mike H. realizes that I’m looking for a sample of this mental agility in action. “Last night’s operation is a prime example,” he says. The mission’s components, he explains, included a “double stack of fixed and rotary wing platforms.” (That would be jets and helicopters.) Once on the ground, the raiding party of 50 or so SEALs and their Iraqi Special Forces counterparts was divided into three assault teams, each including translators, door breachers, interrogators, and other specialists. The SEAL ground commander coordinated movements of not only the air cover but all three house-hunting teams, too, with the understanding that each individual SEAL had been trained well enough to make impromptu decisions as an evolving situation warranted. Thus the success of the gunfight: No good guys were injured.
 
“There was a new guy out there with us, first mission, and he was in charge of one of the assault teams,” says Mike H. “No one—nobody—had any problem with that. Because we know that if he made it this far, he couldn’t be stupid.”
 
I later meet this raw SEAL, the compact but hardly muscle-bound Mason B. The great joy of the SEAL community, he tells me, “is that from the get-go everybody has the same mutual respect for your physical and mental ability, regardless of rank. We all come from the same place.”
 
The fact, however, remains: Intelligent people get scared, too.
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secrets behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

Recent experiments at Harvard, Columbia, the University of California at Irvine, and other labs around the world have begun to unlock the mystery of both primal fear and remembered fear. Once an animal has “learned” to be afraid of something, that memory never vanishes from the animal’s amygdala. But Gregory Quirk, Ph.D., and researcher Kevin Corcoran, experimenting on lab rats at the University of Puerto Rico school of medicine, have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon. We can overlay those bad memories—and the emotions they evoke—by forming new memories in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that supersede those stored in the amygdala.
 
The catch? Humans have to be intelligent enough to repeat an action, any action, over and over, with the knowledge that they are “unlearning” the bad memory. Lieutenant Commander Eric Potterat, Ph.D., a Naval Special Warfare Command psychologist, quotes Hamlet on the subject: “‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ That’s my favorite Shakespeare quote.”
 
I visited the slim, bespectacled, and well-pressed Potterat at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, before leaving for Iraq. A 12-year Navy man, the 39-year-old operation-psychology expert and former SERE (survival/evasion/resistance/escape) trainer was selected by the SEAL command 2 years ago to work with incoming candidates. “Intelligence-wise, we’re getting some absolutely amazing people at the door,” he says. “And those who complete the training go from amazing to elite from the neck up.”
 
To hone this SEAL initiation, Potterat reached out to the sports psychologists at a nearby U.S. Olympic training center to glean insights on the making of a world-class athlete. “It really opened my eyes,” he says. “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the SEAL candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Situps, pushups, running, swimming—off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans—this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”
 
Thinking makes it so.
 
During my research, many SEALs shared the mental tricks they use to instill what we might call bravery. A SEAL in Fallujah told me that a single 16-man platoon of SEAL candidates fires as many small-arms rounds in 2 weeks of training as an entire marine regiment fires in a year. “We push ourselves so far that we reach that level of fear where we think we’re going to die,” he said. “You’ve done it a thousand times, so when you do it for real, there’s less fear. You go and do it just like you trained for it.”
 
Another SEAL in Fallujah, a weapons instructor, pointed out that the same “adrenaline bombs” that involuntarily whiten your face and loosen your bowels (the brain deems the sphincter and bladder nonessential muscles, so SEALs always hit the john before a mission for what’s called a combat dump) also shut down the capillaries in your fingertips, causing a loss of fine motor control. (Try signing your name right after a rigorous workout.) To counteract these involuntary reactions, he teaches his charges to never pull back the slides of their automatic weapons with their fingers, but rather to use the edges of their hands, as if karate chopping.
 
This is, he added, the same muscle memory he teaches his family to utilize when dialing 911. “Unplug the phone and have everyone in the house, yourself included, do it a couple of hundred times,” he told me. “This may come in handy. You won’t be fumbling with the phone during a real emergency.”
 
A SEAL “breacher” named Brian A. emphasized that, before he blew open any door in Iraq or Afghanistan, he steadied his hands and the explosives he was handling “with four of the biggest, deepest, gut-filling diaphragmatic breaths a human being can possibly take, to flood my body with as much oxygen as possible.”
 
Says Potterat, “I don’t for a minute doubt that Tiger Woods does the same thing, over and over, when he’s practicing on the putting green.” Woods’s father, you might recall, was a Green Beret—the U.S. Army equivalent of a Navy SEAL.
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

In his cramped office in Fallujah, the 27-year-old Naval Academy grad—the liaison with the Anbar sheikhs—opens his laptop and shows me a screen filled with floating, intersecting circles of various sizes and colors. He hits a key and the circles mesh; another, and they separate. Fourth, fifth, and sixth screens show parallel lines of various colors. The circles and graphs represent local tribes and their changing alliances over the past few years.
 
“These Bedouin tribes—their loyalties shift with the sands,” he says. “This is where we stood when we arrived a couple of years ago.” The screen fills with “hostile” circles. “This is where we are now.” Most of them morph into “friendly” circles. “Of the 101 tribes out here, 31 are major. They’re the ones we’ve targeted to bring over to our side against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Bigs come. Smalls follow. They’re not stupid. They’re clever. So how do we do this? We volunteer to, er, solve problems they may be having with insurgents.”
 
That work consists basically of bartering, says 32-year-old Lieutenant Chris W., whose unit, SEAL Team 4, recently returned from Anbar. “When we arrived in Ramadi, we weren’t engaging these tribes in any consistent way.” Army and marine units were transferring in and out so rapidly that American outreach ebbed and flowed—and potential allies were lost.
 
But in November 2006, Chris W.’s SEAL team, sensing an opening, used an al-Qaeda attack on a local Iraqi sheikh as its first wedge. Working with U.S. Army units stationed in the area, SEAL Team 4 wiped out about 30 of the sheikh’s enemies, set up sniper positions overlooking his home and village, and began a brisk lend-lease program of supplies, such as generators, water pumps, and ovens. In return, the sheikh encouraged his followers to become Iraqi police and army recruits. That was the start of the now famous, if controversial, Anbar awakening.
 
“Money came to this man’s tribe,” Chris W. tells me. “People want to be part of that. Other tribes that for thousands of years had butted heads with his tribe started to come on board once they saw what he was able to accomplish by partnering with us.”
 
To barter successfully, however, a man must know—and trust—his trading partner, have a familiarity with his partner’s language, and have a deep understanding of his partner’s customs and heritage. It’s more Gertrude Bell than Charlie Sheen.
 
“Being a warrior, being what you call ‘brave,’ requires attention to something greater than just martial activity,” says Master Chief Will Guild, a 27-year SEAL veteran who runs a mentorship program for incoming candidates. “These men are problem solvers, and there are many ways to solve problems. I think you have to be ready to do whatever it takes, and that includes using diplomacy.
 
“We’re not trained to be automatons,” he continues. “There’s no shortage of physical courage in the SEALs or Marine Corps or any active military branch of the service. Moral courage is something else. And if you want to inspire moral courage in your troops, you have to teach them how to make decisions.”
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

On one of my last nights in Fallujah, I have a round-table discussion with five SEAL officers—three Incredible Hulks and two Batmen. They’re all older than 35, and they agree to speak freely on condition of anonymity. Our session takes place a few hours before these SEALs gear up for a midnight raid.
 
There is the usual talk about courage emanating from strategy and tactics, from comradeship and shared responsibility, from training and muscle memory and diaphragmatic breathing. Then we reach the meat of the discussion. Which one of these officers would trade places with the lieutenant working with the sheikhs? Big hoots all around.
 
“You have the wrong guys,” says one. “We’re the door breachers, and proud of it.”
 
Another: “We don’t do so well with the hugging and kissing.”
 
A third: “You’ll never meet a team guy who says that’s what he wants to do. It might be what he has to do, but all team guys want to do is hunt down and kill bad guys. That’s it.”
 
When I describe this exchange to Guild, he laughs. “They were putting you on a little bit. Part of the tough-guy ethos is getting the right guys to hunt the right enemy by the right means, at the right time and place. But courage is not being reckless and cavalier. One of the biggest parts of being a special operator is showing restraint.”
 
Later that evening, I stand in a shadowed corner of the ready room as these same men don their war paint for that night’s intended “snatch.” Whitesnake screams over the loudspeakers. Cans of Rockstar and Red Bull are emptied. Blue extra-sticky tape is attached to explosive charges. K-bars are sharpened. A bomb-sniffing German shepherd, his fur neatly shaved into a mohawk, growls. A Pussycat Dolls video plays on a large-screen TV. A 50-caliber machine gun is oiled, and chem lights and headlamps are tested. Slides are racked onto sidearms. There is much burping and farting.
 
The SEALs, several dozen of them, fly at midnight. They return 3 1/2 hours later with 16 handcuffed prisoners. As they file past me, the SEAL officer who’d been most vociferous about wanting to kill people winks. “No dead,” he says, nodding toward the captives. “Now that’s courage.”

 

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