In August of 1969, prior to deploying to Viet Nam, I participated in a mandatory training from Fleet Airborne Electronics Training Unit – Pacific (FAETUPAC) called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE).
It is the most valuable training that I have ever participated in. I learned more about myself in particular and life in general in that setting than I had ever learned previously or since.
The premise of the course is that if you are going to get captured by the enemy, the more prepared for that experience you are the better you can survive and perhaps even thrive in a torture ridden, harsh setting that corrodes the human mind, the human body, and the human soul. There are skills you need to develop, attitudes you need to cultivate, and a fierce resolve and determination you have to craft.
We started out this training by learning basic living off the land survival skills. We focused on seashore foraging the first afternoon and foraging in the high desert the second day. Then life changed very suddenly. While trying to evade the enemy we were captured and placed in a realistic simulated North Vietnamese prison camp.
We were stripped of all possessions and put into a regimented process of interrogation, indoctrination, and mild levels of torture.
The most challenging torture event for me was the little black box I was put into. I stood in the box, knelt down, was shoved down hard, and the top was closed over my head and a latch fastened. That was the first time in my life that I really understood the definition of claustrophobia. I could not move. As time began to pass I became more and more anxious. My legs started to tingle and go to sleep as my circulation was cut off.
I decided that the only way that I could endure this was to force my mind to relax and go to sleep. Which I did. So my torture event became nap time.
I do not know how long I was in the black box. But what I know is that I was grateful for air when that lid opened and that I could not stand up. My legs had such reduced circulation that I literally could not support my own weight.
Escape: Missed Opportunities!
It was at that point that I missed my first chance for escape. I was left unattended for a few moments. In retrospect I think I could have take advantage of not being monitored and gone down a hallway that lead to an exit out of the compound as you went past the interrogation rooms. But I did not react fast enough and did not have the courage to just do it and let the consequences be hanged.
I also may have been able to escape when I was being interrogated. I purposely feigned a mental break down during the interrogation. I guess my acting was pretty good. A monitor was summoned to check on me and see if I was really loosing it. My interrogator left the room while the monitor engaged with me. When I said to him that I thought that we were supposed to do what we could to mess with the situation he smiled and nodded his head, and walked out of the room.
The walls of the interrogation room were a flimsy plywood. I think I could have blown through the wall and escaped. But I was not fast enough in my decision making and acting on the opportunity. The interrogator returned and the opportunity was lost. Again, I did not have the courage to act.
Anticipatory Recoil and Abuse:
One of the other torture events was that guards would slap us across the face at every opportunity they could. I discovered that after being hit a few times my face became numb and I really could not feel the pain. But the slap still had the effect of driving fear and creating an anticipatory recoil. They were dominating us and taking away our humanity without leaving permanent tissue damage. We became abuse victims.
By the way, when I returned to the base in San Diego I could not chew with my molars because of the hammering my face had taken. Fortunately, it was not the first time I had had that experience. As a goalie on the water polo team in high school I had had my jaw hammered many times by my teammates in practice. It heals in a couple of days.
But the terror is etched in your memory.
The Formal Group Debriefing:
We were formally debriefed by an excellent group of instructors who gave us feedback about our experience and shared lessons about how US prisoners successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated captivity during the Korean War. That debriefing was excellent. It helped us begin the process of putting the experience into a context and reflect on the learning and growth that lay ahead for us.
The Informal, Peer Based, Personal, Intimate Debriefing:
We were then loaded onto busses and driven back to the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. I was sitting next to a lieutenant commander who had been my peer in the training. (His rank was actually about 10 levels above mine.) He was devastated and was questioning his personal worth as an officer and a leader. He felt shame that he had not handled the situation differently. He too had lacked the courage and skill appropriate to the situation. That discussion was a very powerful reflection on the prison camp experience as we mulled it over and teased out the lessons we could learn from the experience. I found myself coaching him through this sense-making process and helping him to begin to define the work he needed to do to develop the skills, attitudes, and fierce resolve and determination that would make him a better officer and leader.
The “So What” from SERE
This experience had several life shaping aspects in it that have become clear for me over the ensuing forty-five years.
Shift of Focus to People and Organizations:
Prior to my military service I had been studying Geology and Geophysics at the university. This SERE experience was one of the seminal events that pushed me to move my focus from the geological sciences to the behavioral sciences. I found that the burning questions for me were the ones about why people behave the way they do and why and how organizations operate in the peculiar fashion that they do. The seeds of my career in organization design, talent development, social entrepreneurism, and coaching are found in this SERE training, my experiences in Vietnam, and in the US Navy in general. Participating in these learning laboratories has been a great blessing for my emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development.
It’s All About Attitude!
Two of the most powerful physical lessons from SERE are the simple, practical reality that after they slap you a few times is stops hurting and that it will heal in a couple of days. What this means is that you don’t have to cower and recoil when the raise their hand. You have the capacity to resist, and more importantly to turn your pain and anguish into power.
I walked away from SERE realizing that I could control my attitude and that that would be a life long quest for me. And it has been. As I have passed through the ups and downs of professional and personal life I have had flashbacks to those opportunities for escape that I did not take. These flashbacks have been a useful sieve through which to evaluate the experiences that I have and place them into a perspective that helps me to distill their reality and craft my response to them. My crap detector works a lot better because of it and I am less intimidated by feared consequences.
These two quotes have helped me remember the power of attitude:
“Everything can be taken from a man but … the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” William James
There Are No Limits to Your Potential!
Another of the most important things that I learned at SERE was a basic lesson about human capability and potential. We were pushed beyond our perceived limits in SERE. None of us realized that we could survive in a harsh, inhumane environment and have the opportunity to perhaps even thrive. If we were willing to learn it, we could have learned that we have unlimited potential that we can choose to fulfill. The ball is in our court.
“Man goes beyond necessities to the very limits of possibilities because he wonders where those limits lie. And behold, they don’t lie anywhere because, like the horizon, they expand with every step he takes toward them.” Victor Frankl
What I learned from SERE was that you do not have to relinquish control of your thoughts and actions to other people or to organizations. You have the power within you to survive and thrive in an amazing array of environments and circumstances. It all depends on how you choose to develop and employ your personal capabilities. Especially your mental toughness. But you also need to know your limits and your boundaries. We do have limits given our current array of capabilities. And we need to have boundaries of what we will accept and not accept from the people and world in which we find ourselves.
Knowing yourself, managing your capabilities, and being mentally tough are essential tools we need to have in our kit.