During a routine military training exercise some years ago, two skydivers collided about 1,000 feet above the desert floor east of San Diego. One of the parachutes shuddered, and held. The other one collapsed, sending a Navy commando named Mark Divine into free fall.
In the next few moments, which promised to be his last, Divine's training took over. He worked his parachute lines up and down, to try to catch air. About 50 feet from the ground, the chute swept open, pitching its cargo hard into the dust and scrub, unharmed. "I don't remember ever thinking about dying," recalls Divine. "Even afterward."
At a time when the country is mobilizing for war and engaged in counter-terrorist operations around the world, psychiatrists and military professionals are determined to learn how some people can handle heart-stopping danger and walk away without any apparent psychological harm. The answers are crucial not only for recruiting elite fighters but for preventing the kind of mental breakdowns that can follow intense combat.
Academic psychiatrists have been doing sophisticated blood analysis and mental testing on groups of special forces, including Navy SEAL (Sea, Air Land) teams and Army Green Berets, as they participate in classified training courses. The research reveals how training and upbringing -- including our response to trauma and abuse -- can produce enormous mental resilience. It also affirms that most commandos are neither unfeeling warriors nor the Rambo-type loners many people imagine.
"We think of these guys as people who just don't feel stress at the same level as everyone else," said Dr. Andy Morgan of Yale University, who is directing the research. "But that is not the case. In some ways they are even more sensitive than the rest of us."
High dropout rate
The military has been profiling its most elite soldiers since at least World War II, to better predict who's got the right stuff. After all, about 60% to 80% of special forces candidates drop out. On standard tests, there are few surprises. Commandos tend to score above average on general intelligence, high on measures of determination and earnestness, lower on neuroticism and anxiety, studies show. They also score high on tests of sociability, the ability to work well in teams. "That's fairly crucial: They have to play well with others," said Lt. Col. Morgan Banks, command psychologist for U.S. Army special forces at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Banks said cultural stereotypes can be misleading: "We do get plenty of conservative country kids who grew up hunting, thinking for themselves; but we also get Democrats from Boston."
Bodybuilders and self-styled supermen tend not to make the cut. David McDonald, a University of Missouri psychologist who followed a group of 336 SEAL candidates through training in 1990, said that "the cockiest guys at the beginning of training weren't there at the end.... Those who graduated tended to be very serious, intense, hunker-down types."
That intensity can make the return to civilian life difficult, some commandos say. There's a restless craving for risk and physical challenge that a life of backyards and barbecues can't always satisfy. But when the heat's on, these qualities stand out.
In several experiments over the last two years, Morgan and colleagues at Yale and in the Army have analyzed blood and saliva samples from about 250 special forces and regular infantrymen as they participated in survival training courses. The training, required of all U.S. combat troops, is meant to evoke fear of capture, interrogation and torture. In exercises based on prisoner-of-war experiences, the young men are "captured," bound and hooded, deprived of sleep, then bullied to give up precious information. The men are not physically harmed. But they don't know how or when the test will end, and one slip-up can derail a career.
In the special operations personnel, the exercise causes the stress hormone cortisol to spike about as much as in a patient undergoing heart surgery -- about 20 times the normal rate. Contrary to expectation, their stress response is actually higher than in the regular infantry. But at the same time, these elite fighters have highly elevated levels of another hormone, called neuropeptide-Y, or NPY, which is thought to be a natural relaxant. Produced in the brain and intestine, this substance plays a role in appetite control, heart function and sleep quality, among other things.
A hormonal difference
In animal studies, injections of the hormone significantly reduce anxious behavior, according to Bob Kesterson, a hormone researcher at Vanderbilt University. Although similar experiments have not yet been done on humans, the Yale group believes this internal relaxant helps keep commandos' minds alert and supple when stress levels are going off the chart. "In most people, the system may simply shut down after cortisol levels get to a certain point, and they kind of lose it," said Morgan.