You might remember it – in Episode 3 of the HBO series Band of Brothers, Private First Class Albert Blithe struggles with trauma and fear amidst the battle to take the town of Carentan. He even suffered from hysterical blindness during the battle and after overcoming it was shot a few days after the battle in another firefight. There’s a pretty powerful discussion in the episode between Lieutenant Ronald Speirs, who seems to have no fear at all, and Blithe who was literally incapacitated by it. Speirs counsels Blithe on how to approach mortality in combat, and that the right outlook and demeanor are critical for success in battle. But with the two polar opposites of military bearing talking to each other, you still get the sense that some people are just better suited to the extreme stress of combat than others – and that those better suited perform at a much higher level than the rest.
Some years ago researchers took the blood of SERE students in training, among which US Army Special Forces candidates were well represented. The takeaway was that Neuropeptide Y, an amino acid neuropeptide whose presence has been associated with resilience, recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and with mitigating fear responses, is inordinately found in high amounts among Green Berets during stressful training events. The belief is that the chemical allows individuals to perform better under extreme stress.
This leads to the question – if candidates have a lot of Neuropeptide Y, would they be more likely to be successful in training and operations as a Green Beret? And do those without much Neuropeptide Y not often make it to an ODA, or perform poorly under pressure if they do?
I think the truth is that it’s a story of nature vs. nurture. Some people naturally handle stress better than others. They keep a clearer head when things get crazy or they regain a sense of stability after a shock faster than most. There are others who don’t have the natural ability – they lack the chemicals – so they have to learn how to handle stress in other ways. Your average ODA often holds a wide variety personality types among the 12 members – and if you actually tested everyone who’s earned a Green Beret, I think you’d find both those with higher levels of Neuropeptide Y, and those with lower levels who had to learn resiliency where it came natural to others.
My belief is also that the nature vs. nurture binary applies to proclivities, drives and interests as well. Some people are attracted to more stressful situations than others and might be more likely to try out for jobs like those in SF. These might include firefighters, other SOF or infantry, fighter pilots, and other professions where performance under extreme stress is a big part of the job. So maybe my hypothesis is that stress responses (either given or learned) aren’t just a discriminator for Green Beret candidates, but the stressful situations themselves attract those with well-developed stress responses.
So what’s still unclear to me is if an individual is born with a set level of Neuropeptide Y production or modulation, or if that level can be affected by training. Either way, stress responses can be improved with focused effort – and many other factors like determination, focus, patience and discipline are likely bigger discriminators for who becomes a Green Beret and who doesn’t.
More on Neuropeptide Y presence in military subjects:
Think Like a Green Beret: Don’t Stress by Mark Miller
Neuropeptide Y: A stressful review by Florian Reichmann and Peter Holzer
Research shows why some soldiers are cool under fire by Julie Steenhuysen