It was February and freezing cold in the swamps of North Carolina as 23-year-old Matthew Docchio slogged through a grueling 48-mile march, but Docchio never once doubted that he’d make it. The test was the first part of his training to become a Green Beret, one of the most elite units in the U.S. Army’s special forces. Scientists are studying recruits like Docchio in hopes of pinpointing the exact traits that define the perfect human fighting machine. Confidence, they say, is one of the most important factors.
Over the years, the U.S. military has found effective ways to select the best of the best.
“They’ve tried different approaches to get the product they want,” says Dr. Andy Morgan, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine and a researcher with the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “They may not know exactly why it works, but it works.”
But recently researchers like Morgan have begun to quantify the qualities that make modern warriors successful. Specifically, scientists are trying to determine what allows some fighters to maintain mental clarity and avoid breaking down during even the most harrowing combat experiences.
The results of these studies may help recruiters sift more easily through military personnel to find those most qualified to take on particularly difficult missions. They may also allow commanders to determine when troops are at their peak and when they need to be given a rest.
Up until now, researchers studying soldiers’ unique traits have used military programs — like survival training — as their laboratories. But as war with Iraq becomes increasingly likely, scientists may have an opportunity to see if what they have observed in training is also true in combat.
HORMONES MAY PLAY KEY ROLE
Morgan originally started studying soldiers to learn why only some people develop PTSD after a natural disaster or other trauma. It’s often difficult for researchers to determine what qualities make a person susceptible to PTSD because they meet people only after they’ve developed the condition, Morgan says.
But soldiers, such as those currently being deployed to the Middle East, offer researchers an unusual chance to look at people before and after a traumatizing event.
Several recent studies have suggested that certain hormones may play a key role in preventing PTSD among those who are subjected to trauma or other stressful events.
For example, higher levels of a substance called neuropeptide Y, known as NPY, may help calm people under stress, according to Morgan.
Studies that looked at soldiers in survival training found that those with the highest levels of NPY were rated by their instructors as performing better than those with lower levels of this hormone.
“Those with more NPY seemed to have more mental clarity,” Morgan says.
Further, soldiers with high levels of NPY tended to report fewer symptoms of anxiety and distress, he adds.
HEART RATE HOLDS CLUES
Meanwhile, at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, Fla., researchers are trying to find other clues to why some recruits consistently prove more resilient. Along with personality and aptitude tests, researchers are studying their physiological characteristics, such as heart rate.
Amanda O’Donnell Lords, a research psychologist in the aviation selection division of the lab, is looking at heart rate variability in recruits undergoing particularly stressful training exercises, such as the aviation water survival test, which simulates a plane or helicopter crash.
“They are put in a thing that looks like a big tin can,” O’Donnell Lords explains. “They’re strapped in, put underwater and turned upside down.”
As water rushes into the can, students must unbuckle themselves, find their way out of the can and return to the surface.
After the exercise, O’Donnell Lords and her colleagues test the students’ ability to think clearly. They have found they can accurately predict which students will perform well on mental tests based on how their heart rates and hormone levels change during and after the test.
“This is very important,” O’Donnell Lords says. “We want soldiers and aviators who will be able to think clearly after a major stressor, such as when a bomb goes off or when a plane goes down.”
O’Donnell Lords suspects that the research she is doing may eventually help commanders figure out which fighters are better suited for a particular mission based on hormone profiles and heart rate measurements.
And she foresees a future in which the heart rates of military personnel on the battlefield are closely followed using tiny monitors that beam back information.
“You could call this up and decide who needs to be pulled back for a rest,” says O’Donnell Lords.
NOT RAMBO TYPES
Yale University’s Morgan suspects studies on physiological processes prove that some of us are simply born with the ability to handle difficult situations, while others are not. And, he believes, these characteristics also include key personality traits.
Contrary to popular images displayed on TV and in the movies, elite fighters are not people who get a kick out of taking risks, experts say. And they’re not Rambo types.
“Compared to the general population, those in the special forces are not higher in novelty-seeking behavior,” says Morgan. “In fact, they are actually quite focused and mentally meticulous.”
Take, for example, underwater divers and paratroopers. You need to be very, very careful with your equipment to survive, says Morgan.
While elite fighters will do things the rest of us won’t do because we’re afraid of getting hurt, they’re not reckless, he adds.
And, says Capt. Peter Huie, who runs a special forces qualification course, there’s no room for superstars.
“In special forces you’re part of a small team. There are no one-man armies,” says Huie. “You’ve got to be a team player to be successful.”
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
Although there are a variety of personality types among special forces fighters, nearly all have one trait in common — a strong sense of self-confidence. Time ordinary people might spend worrying about being maimed or killed, these war machines use to plan their next moves, Morgan says.
But this confidence may not be something that every special forces fighter is born with. In many cases, it’s the product of intensive training, says Dr. Julia Whealin, a researcher at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you can help soldiers focus on what they’re doing, they are less likely to be thinking about dying or making a mistake, she says.
And, Whealin adds, soldiers who believe in their ability to cope with whatever is thrown at them tend to be less likely to develop PTSD.
Researchers are still unclear whether “nature or nurture” creates elite soldiers, but most agree it is probably a combination.
And, says Huie, a lot of it has to do with self-selection on the part of individuals. When the going gets tough and everyone is waterlogged and cold, then “those who signed up on a whim drop out,” says Huie.
Linda Carroll is a free-lance reporter based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Health and Smart Money.